Although Petke definitely deserves a head coaching job in MLS, New York was not an ideal place to get his first look, and the circumstances surrounding his hire are unsettling.
Before digesting the New York Red Bulls' decision to promote one of the club's assistant coaches to its full-time head coaching gig, let's get a few things out of the way.
Yes, Petke deserves a head coach job in Major League Soccer.
During his 12 years in MLS, Petke was a rugged warrior at center back for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, D.C. United and Colorado Rapids before returning to New York as a Red Bull. His natural leadership made him beloved among teammates, that fact evidenced by how heartbroken teammate Tim Ream was when Petke decided to retire midway through his first season.
"Just bringing in intensity day in and day out - every training session, every game - just playing hard," Ream explained about Petke's qualities. "Everyone respects the amount of passion that he plays with each game, it’s just unbelievable."
Those qualities will bode well for Petke as a head coach, but it is unfortunate that his first job will be with the dysfunctional Red Bulls.
Essentially, Petke is New York's equivalent of taking a parent to the high school prom. The 36-year-old was not the team's first or second (or even beyond that) choice, which places Petke in an extremely awkward and very insecure position as the team's new head coach. Thierry Henry is acutely aware of that reality. If the Red Bulls don't get results early, this could get bad very quickly.
It's not that Henry is a head case, as some in the media would suggest, it is just that he doesn't like to lose and he is very impatient.
In Europe, he was used to working under some of the biggest head coaches in the business and playing with teammates who were his equals. To put things in perspective, he has almost lost as many games as a Red Bull as he did in the previous decade while playing for Arsenal and Barcelona.
In an ideal world, Henry would be just one of the guys as opposed to the star, but his $4.5 million salary won't allow him to do so. And if the negative spotlight shines towards Henry this season, Petke will be a very easy target to turn the blame on. Considering Henry's clout with the club, with whom do you think the players will most likely align?
Another challenge Petke will have in handling Henry is the fact that both men played together during the Frenchman's first year with the club. It's going to be very difficult for Henry to take criticism from a former teammate, who just three years ago was likely trying to be on the former Arsenal star's good side. Petke's predecessor, Hans Backe, was rightly put under the spotlight for not being critical of his star players and it is tough to see that improving under his former assistant coach.
Even if everything goes right between Petke and his star players, Henry and Tim Cahill, the Red Bulls roster isn't built to play defensively, which is their head coach's strength. The big acquisitions of Juninho and Fabian Espindola along with the rumored recruitment of Peguy Luyindula from PSG, points to a Red Bulls side that wants to play a style suited for an attack-minded coach. It's very difficult to imagine Petke not being more adept at coaching and developing a more defensive system.
If Petke has two saving graces, it is that he's American and beloved by Red Bulls fans. The team's fan base was beginning to grow weary of Backe's harshness toward U.S. born players and his lack of priority towards competitions like the U.S. Open Cup. If the Red Bulls hired a foreign coach, especially one who wasn't a big name, fans would criticize the club for going down a similar route as Backe. With Petke, they are more likely to be patient and allow him to implement his ideas and philosophies.
Still, Petke deserved much better than this from New York. A former club legend shouldn't have to wait until the day after preseason started and after other candidates could not agree to terms to learn that he will become the head coach of arguably the second biggest team in MLS. As a high-profile agent said bluntly about the state of affairs of the club, "What's going on in New York is just part of a long-time cluster ---- with that team."
Here's hoping that Petke isn't a part of that cluster.
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