Mike Petke - New York Red Bulls Head Coach

When he’s on the sidelines, New York Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke exudes style. The team’s second-year leader eschews the traditional coaching look for something that would be at home in a top-line men’s-fashion mag. Indeed, his  sartorial sensibility earned him a feature in Esquire. “I take pride in how I present myself. I love feeling distinguished. I like a certain look,” Petke explains. Fans know that Petke’s cool elegance as a coach is in sharp contrast to the intense,  heated play he brought to Major League Soccer in a career spanning 13 seasons as a central defender, most of it as a Red Bull (the team was first called the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, then the MetroStars).
While with these clubs, and also with D.C. United, where he won the MLS Cup during the 2004 season, and the Colorado Rapids, where he helped the team reach the Western Conference Finals in 2005, his drive to win guided everything. This palpable passion endeared the Long Island native to fans — especially those supporting the MetroStars/Red Bulls — and it’s one reason he’s one of the most popular players in team history despite scoring only five goals during his  tenure. Other stats speak to his work ethic: Petke remains the MetroStars/Red Bulls all-time leader in starts and games played.
Following his final year with New York in 2010, Petke took a job as manager of business operations with the Red Bulls. Following stretches as an assistant coach and interim head coach, Petke was named the club’s head coach on Jan.  24, 2013. In his first year, he guided the franchise to a league-best 59 points off a 17-9-8 record, helping the club clinch its first-ever MLS Supporters’ Shield. That earned Petke a MLS Coach of the Year finalist nod.
Petke, a married father of two sons, signed a contract extension this season and is determined to take his team to heights the club has long aspired to and never reached. Says Petke, “I want to win the MLS Cup for New York.”

LIM: Did you play other sports growing up on Long Island?
MP: I played every sport imaginable. Baseball for many years, wresting for six years, basketball and then soccer, which, when I got to high school, kept calling me. So I decided right before high school to forget about every other sport and  just concentrate on soccer.

LIM: What kind of kid were you?
MP: I was a crazy kid. I was bouncing off the walls at home. Today I probably would be diagnosed as hyperactive. Right down the road from my house the elementary school had a local CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] league that my  brother played in, so my parents figured they would sign me up and let me run around. My parents didn’t know the first thing about soccer — and an argument could be made that they still really don’t after all these years — but I was definitely  too young to play baseball or basketball. And soccer was a way for me to get the energy out. My parents went down and lied about my age. I was 4 years old and I played on a 5-year-old team. The story is that, on the first day, I asked if I could  play outfield at soccer practice. I was always running around away from the ball.

LIM: Who were some of your main influences at that time?
MP: At a young age, my father and my brother. There was no professional soccer then. The Cosmos [now the New York Cosmos] had just about gone by the time I came into it, but with other sports growing up it was the Islanders of the  early ’80s with Mike Bossy. It was Don Mattingly in baseball. I never went to a sporting event as a kid so it was those guys from afar. Really, though, my dad was my first one. He never played an organized sport in his life. He didn’t know the  first thing about soccer but he was in the backyard with me kicking the ball or throwing a baseball non-stop. All these years later not a time goes by when I don’t credit my dad as a huge part of my success. He was my main driving force — most of the time to make him proud, some of the time to stick it in his face. Whether he really knew it or it just worked out, he pushed the right buttons.

LIM: And off the field?
MP: My mom was the shoulder to cry on. My dad wanted his kids to excel, and did everything in his power to help us with that. He was very tough on us. As I got older and more competitive in sports it became an interesting dynamic. My dad  is one of my best friends. I have a phenomenal relationship with him. Looking back on it, it was more of a drive for me to succeed than my dad enjoying the game. When I didn’t play well in a game he would go two or three days without  talking to me. He would be screaming from the sidelines to motivate me, and my mom would be the one, when I got home, who would tell me, Don’t give up, and that my dad just wanted the best for me.

LIM: When did you know you wanted to be a soccer player?
MP: I was very competitive in baseball, and following that was wrestling and basketball. I stopped wrestling after six or seven years. Basketball was next. I really loved baseball and my dad wanted me to play, but when I entered high school I  transferred
to a school, St. John the Baptist, that had a very good soccer program, and I was excelling. Then it came into mind about scholarships. There was no professional league then so it was a way to get a scholarship. I didn’t want to focus on two  or three sports. I had to make a decision with my parents to just focus on soccer. It was a hard decision, especially giving up baseball, but I wanted to put all my eggs in one basket.

LIM: When did you think you could make it as a pro and earn a living playing soccer?
MP: Probably my second year in college, when MLS started.

LIM: So if it weren’t for MLS you wouldn’t have made it?
MP: I probably would have gone over to Europe and tried, but who knows if I would have made the cut there? I was young still. I could have been like a minor league baseball player putting in his dues, but timing is everything. I realized that  something was going on here now that there was a league. Right then and there my desire and focus was 100 percent on becoming a professional soccer player in my own country.

LIM: How did you end up at Southern Connecticut State?
MP: I had Division I offers but after visiting the college and talking to the coach, Ray Reid, now head coach at the University of Connecticut, I found it was the best fit for me. I’ll never forget that he walked in and said, “I’m giving you a full  scholarship but you may not see the field once.” Every other Division I coach said that I was going to start from the first time. So I loved that. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life, what my short- and longterm goals were. One of them  was to play on the Olympic team. He told me, “If you come to my college and you listen to me, I guarantee that you will get a shot with the Olympics.”

LIM: Did you have a chance to make the squad that went to Atlanta in 1996?
MP: I got invited to play with the 1996 Olympic team. I was the young guy. I was around 19 at the time. The rest of the guys were 21, 22 — all the big names that went on to play in the 1998 and 2002 World Cup. I think it was more that they  wanted to bring me in for the experience. I never thought that I had much chance to make it. I played with them for four months. It was phenomenal.

LIM: That time must have really given your career a boost.
MP: It showed me what it took. That was the highest level that I had ever played, at thePetke beams after the Red Bulls won the Supporters' Shield for best regular MLS season record -- the team's first trophy. time. It showed me valuable lessons about the proper way to take care of yourself; training; what the level of training should be; the commitment. Before  that, like most people in my situation, I was always one of the better — if not the best — players on my local club team, my local college team. Then you step into a realm like that and you’re at the bottom of the barrel. You see there is a  different level out there, and it takes everything you have to get to it.

LIM: If you hadn’t made it professionally in the game, what were you planning to do?
MP: I could lie and come up with something, but I don’t have a clue. My sister, who is two years older than me, used to get so angry with me when my parents would get on me about my grades. She would always say, “You’ve got to do good,  you’ve got to get a job.” I would tell her not to worry, that I was going to be a millionaire playing soccer. It used to drive her crazy, but I didn’t know and didn’t want anything else. My focus was on soccer. Don’t get me wrong; I passed my  classes. But everything was on soccer.

LIM: What did it mean to get drafted by the New York area MLS team as the eighth overall pick?
MP: Three years earlier there was no such thing as a [professional soccer] league in this country. All of a sudden the league is two years in, and I’m in my prime going to a combine. Then to get drafted by your hometown team, it was  surreal. It was mind-blowing. My parents couldn’t grasp it. Not only am I going to do what I do for a living, I’m going to be home. It was amazing, one of the best moments of my professional life.

LIM: What were those first few years like for you as a professional?
MP: Looking back on it now they were some of the best years in life. I was young. I was making no money but had no responsibilities financially. I was playing for the love of the game, not a contract, because my contract was set for a while  since the league was so new. I was focused on doing just what I loved. I had no wife, no girlfriend. I was just exploring, doing whatever I wanted to do.

LIM: The first MLS contracts were not very large. Did you have to make ends meet by  taking another job in the off-season?
MP: No, I didn’t. What I was making and what I made at the end of the year was a bit different. I would do signings and make appearances for the team. The league’s come a long way since then. My first contract was $28,000 a year. I  remember every two weeks, after taxes, I would get $817, and I was on the cover of certain magazines. It was ridiculous but there was something very humbling about that. I’m very proud of that. I made $28,000 a year for three years and started all but pretty much the first three games of my rookie year.

LIM: How would you describe your playing style?
MP: It was angry, gritty, determined, and all about the team. I knew my limitations as a player but knew what I excelled at. I was never a “me” guy. I just wanted to win. When I retired I was the league’s all-time leader in yellow cards [he’s now  third] and second in red cards. I was the worker bee on the team and other guys who had more skill were the cream of the crop. I embraced that role and took it to heart. I’ve become better at this, but I’ve been a very sore loser throughout my  life. I don’t like losing, though I think because of my kids I’ve had to tame that a bit. I would do anything that was asked of me. I would throw my body… kick someone. I had a hard time keeping my emotions in check, which led to most of my  cards.

LIM: Was there one that stands out in particular?
MP: My second year in the league, in 1999, we weren’t having a great season, which was frustrating. We were playing D.C. United. One of their forwards, Jaime Moreno, that season’s most valuable player, it seemed every time I got near  him, the ref called a foul. Every foul I would say something, and the ref told me, “One more word out of you and I’m going to throw you out of the game. No more.” Next time when they called a foul, I ran up to the ref and wanted to say  something. So I took the ball, kissed it, and handed it to him — red card, and I got kicked out. The crowd went nuts. I got fined $250 and suspended a game.

LIM: Was there a moment when you realized that you needed to rein in that emotion?
MP: For better or worse, it was never because I needed to grow up or become more professional — that’s who I am. After 9/11, being from New York and going through what I went through that day, it took me a while to take sports seriously  again. Here I was, coming home after games, breaking things, or on the field getting red cards, and something like that happens. My wife was stuck in New York City. My father in law was stuck in the city. That was a tough time for my wife  and I. It took me over a year to get that edge back. I got that edge back, but I was never really the same. I talk about it all the time to my wife: that it really affected me.

LIM: How would you describe your professional career?
MP: I’m somebody who knew his limitations and knew what he excelled at. I never thought I was better than I was and I just ran with what I did best. I gave everything to the team. I think that’s why a lot of it frustrates me now with the new era  of professional athletes. It’s very “me, me, me” now. They want a huge contract before they’ve proven anything. If they’re benched, they’re going to screw over the team instead of supporting the team. I was always about the team.

LIM: How much of that new attitude has become prevalent in MLS?
MP: I don’t think it’s anywhere near where it is compared to other sports in this country, but it’s a hell of a lot more than when I played. And we’re not talking 20 years ago. I stopped playing four years ago. I started seeing it toward the end of  my career, but during my first five or six years in the league I don’t remember one instance where there was any type of ego making a player into a cancer. I see a lot of that nowadays. It’s terrible. I can’t comprehend it sometimes. I  remember when I realized my days were numbered as a player — I just didn’t have it any more — my first response was to grab the center back who took my spot and show him the ropes. To me what was more important than me playing  was the team playing better.

LIM: What was life like as a professional soccer player?
MP: It was a dream come true. To be a professional athlete is the greatest job in the world. If you think about it, the players I coach and when I played, they essentially work 90 minutes a week. If you want to break it down a little more, they  work 12 hours a week, two to two-and-a-half hours a day practice with a day off. They’re on magazine covers. They’re doing interviews. They’re on TV shows. They’re going to events. At the end of the day, the biggest thing is to sit back and  realize that what you loved to do as a kid you’re now doing in front of 20,000 people and getting paid for it.

LIM: Did you ever feel like it was a job?
MP: Yes, there were times, and that’s part of the reason I started thinking about retiring even before my legs gave out. It became monotonous. It was something I had been doing for 30 years and it was getting harder to find that same  motivation.

LIM: Do you think monotony is one aspect of being a professional athlete that fans and observers of sports don’t understand?
MP: I don’t expect them to understand that because at the end of the day they’re paying money to come and support their team. They’re the reason why we’re on the field. As a fan I wouldn’t want to hear that stuff. I wouldn’t want to hear that  he had a bad day because he’s just burned out. There was a point near the end of my playing when I would drive to training on the Garden State Parkway and would feel that little bit of monotony creeping in. Then I would see one person in  every car just sitting there like this [stares out an imagined windshield with two hands on the wheel]. They were going to an office to stare at walls for eight or nine hours a day, and I’m able to play for two hours a day.

LIM: You had a great relationship with the fans and are one of the most popular players in the team’s history. Was that important to you?
MP: It wasn’t conniving or preconceived. It was what it was because at the end of the day I’m a fan as well. Anything that I support I have passion for and I believe in. In 1998 I could see faces in Giants Stadium above the tunnel and still see  those same fans in Red Bull Arena. I know them by first name. To see the passion that they brought during our terrible years, there were times I felt guilty that I was being paid to play. In 1999, we had four wins. I couldn’t accept that. And as a  fan and someone who’s passionate about something, I couldn’t ask them to accept it. I decided I wanted to do everything for the fans and work as hard as I could. In 1998, in my second or third game, I came out to see my parents. I was a young, brash rookie. I was angry about the game, and tired. All the fans were waiting for autographs, and I told them that I wasn’t feeling well, that I was tired, that I would get them next time. I felt a hand on me, on the back of my neck, and it  was my dad. He told me that if I ever walk by these fans again and don’t sign for them that he would never come to a game again. He said that these people are one of the reasons you are playing professional soccer. It just clicked. I never  use the word fans. I use the word supporters. I feel it’s a lot more respectful to them. They support our team and deserve to be recognized for that.

LIM: How has the league evolved from where it was when you played to where it is now?
MP: Every aspect except for one has been raised or gone through the roof. You’re talking about, financially, expansion and recognition. Mainly you talk about the quality on the field. If I had come in 2014 instead of 1998 I don’t know what my  career would have been like. The standard is so much higher. I credit our current commissioner, Don Garber, with a lot of it. He really blew this thing out of the water, to the point that sometimes I wake up and hope we’re not over-expanding  ourselves only 18 years in. It’s a phenomenal business going on.

LIM: When did you think about becoming a coach?
MP: My wife still can’t believe I’m a coach. I was asked when I was playing if I ever thought about going into coaching, and it was never my calling. It just kind of fell in my lap and I fell in love with it very quickly. I learned to love it and appreciate  it.

LIM: Was there a learning curve that came with the job?
MP: It’s still going, and I think it’s going to go on for a hell of a lot longer than I thought. The thing about coaching is when you’re a player, no matter what they say, soccer is a team sport so things don’t fall on you individually. You might miss  a shot; you might miss this, but you lose as a team. Here I’m the guy. It falls on my shoulders, whether from the supporters, from my boss, or from his boss in Austria. That’s the most difficult thing about being in charge of 30-something  players and a staff: You’re the final word.

LIM: Is that the main contrast between coaching and playing?
MP: It takes a while to get used to. I knew my staff from when I was a player and had a good relationship with them, and when I would ask them if I could get this or that they would say, “Mike, you’re the coach. You tell me what you need.” I’m  still in the player’s mentality sometimes, when I didn’t make those decisions and had to ask for an extra ticket for a game.

LIM: What does it take to succeed as a coach?
MP: Patience, commitment, and zero sense of pride. You learn something every day. That’s another difficult part for me, being so competitive and having that player’s mentality. It was tough for me to take other people’s input, whether it was  my coaching staff or my boss. It still is trying sometimes, because I want to do things my way. That’s where the swallowing your pride thing comes in. At the end of the day it’s a collaborative effort. If you’re doing everything on your own, not  delegating things, not taking people’s advice from those who’ve been there, you’re not learning as a coach and you’re not doing yourself any justice. My assistant coach, Robin Fraser, is invaluable to me. I rely on him heavily. My boss, Andy  Roxburgh, was the technical director at UEFA [the Union of European Football Associations]. He taught coaches how to coach. That’s two pretty good guys to have.

LIM: What part of the job keeps you awake at night?
MP: Everything, from one little, missed pass in practice to the excitement and anxiety of a game coming up. My first two months on the job last year, I would wake up and have a pad next to me by my bed so I could write down stuff I just  thought about. It’s a 24-hour job. I think the most important thing to learn is when to take your foot off the pedal for just an hour here or an hour there because otherwise you’re just going to drop dead. My job is about two things: ecstasy and  agony. If we win and we did well, I’m ecstatic for the week. If we lose, I’m a terrible person to be around.

LIM: How do you balance your roles as game tactician and communicator with your players?
MP: It’s a tough balance. One of the difficult parts about being a first-time head coach is when I close my eyes and see how I want my team to play I know exactly, but to transfer that to game plan, to a practice, is very difficult for me. Whereas  communicating with a player and getting the most out of a player I found a bit easier, which is why Robin was invaluable my first year in the league. A lot of times I would tell him, “This is what I want to work on; this is how I want to do it.” He’d  disappear for 20 minutes and come back with what to do.

LIM: How has it been coaching some of the same guys you played with?
MP: It’s been crazy at times. There are times when you really have to catch yourself when you’re joking around with them too much and there are times when you have to stamp your foot down and say, “I’m the coach; I’m the boss.” That’s  tough because at the end of the day you’re the one who’s going to get fired. Players have contracts and they’re going to have a team to play on. If you’re fired as coach and say, “I did it my way and it just didn’t work out,” as opposed to, “I  should have done something different,” then you have no one to blame but yourself.

LIM: How much of an impact does a coach have during the game, and where is the biggest impact?
MP: I could give my players all the direction in the world, all the game planning in the world, but when they step out on that field it’s up to them to do it. They know how to play the game but it’s not what you say sometimes but the look on your  face. If you look panicked they’ll be panicked. If you look confident they’ll be confident. A coach has the biggest impact in chaos and crisis. When the chips are down, you’re the leader.

LIM: What does it mean to you to be an American coach in America’s top soccer league?
MP: To me it’s absolutely huge because the more MLS organizations put faith in players who grew up in this league, instead of going over to Europe and getting a big-name coach, it’s invaluable to set that precedent, to set that image that  we are an American league and we’ve got what it takes. Yes, there might be some inexperience at the beginning, but it could possibly pay off in the end, because this is not a stopover for me for the next big thing: This is what I want.

Favorite Movie: Mallrats
Favorite Restaurant: Copper Canyon, Via 45
Favorite Music: Anything but Country
Pet Peeve: Drivers going too slow in the fast lane
People I’d Like to Dine With: Nelson Mandela and my grandfathers

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20 Sep 2016

By Chad A. Safran