At almost any other club in MLS, Mike Petke's credentials as a home town hero would have meant that he was one of the first names to circulate for the position of head coach - almost two-thirds of the league's coaches are now drawn from former players. As the league matures, more and more of its products are cycling from playing into coaching roles and in doing so changing the face of the technical culture of the league.
New York Red Bulls though, have always been a case apart - with sporting decisions sometimes seeming to come a poor second to the vagaries of branding and positioning. So it was a real surprise when the Red Bulls announced that their new head coach would be Mike Petke - the former New York player (and holder of the record number of appearances for the team) and interim coach of the side since the end of Hans Backe's reign.
Petke was unveiled to members of the media at a hastily arranged press conference on Thursday, alongside New York Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh, who had sat alongside the then interim coach at a similar conference just three days earlier, as the Red Bulls assembled for spring training. At that point a lot of questions were being asked about New York's extensive and frustrating search for a new coach. Gary McAllister, the presumptive choice of Red Bull global head of soccer (and mentor to the Scot) Gerard Houllier had entered then left the frame, as had Paulo Sousa, who had resigned from his job at Hungary's Videoton amid reports of his imminent appointment in New York.
Yet there was also a parade of figures with connections to the league and/or the club's past who were also interviewed, in what were expected to be assistant positions: Eric Wynalda, Tony Meola and Claudio Reyna were mentioned. And while they seemed outside shots for the head coach job — one which seemed to be headed to a European by default — their very mention, along with the presence of Petke, suggested that the Red Bulls hierarchy might at least be open to acknowledging the value of local knowledge somewhere in their senior set up - though even the most optimistic local advocates only suggested that Reyna or Petke might be groomed for the top job eventually.
Speaking on Monday, Roxburgh described the protracted hunt for Backe's replacement as "diligent" while also describing the desired culture of the club as one where humility, hard work and fighting for each other were the paramount qualities. 72 hours later he was sitting alongside his new head coach claiming that Petke personified these qualities, as both men described his short time in charge as being, in retrospect, an extended interview.
Petke has impressed people within and beyond the New York hierarchy with his handling of the team, albeit through the off-season - but his relaxed demeanour was partly attributed to the presumed glass ceiling that would prevent him being a serious contender. As Petke himself pointed out, Red Bull is "a billion dollar company" and when we spoke at the Combine last week he joked that he could "die happy, now that I've coached my home town club," with the easy air of someone who regarded that period as a unique and unlikely experience. I'd also asked him if it was frustrating to see players he'd played alongside get head coaching chances at MLS clubs, and he'd been quick to talk abut the unique challenge of New York, not just from the global Red Bull sporting perspective, but the challenges of dealing with it's marquee players and the particular profile of the city.
At that moment, Petke sounded like someone who had no particular expectation the status quo was about to change, and he was just glad to have the autonomy of dealing with the scouting for the draft - a process the Red Bulls had neglected in the most recent regime and which Petke regards as important. Seen in retrospect, his comments on the profile of player the Red Bulls were looking for in the drafts were similar to the qualities extolled by both Roxburgh and himself this week - less technical specifics, more attitude.
In becoming the Red Bulls coach, Petke ironically joins a further exclusive club associated with the team's fiercest rivals: Alongside, Ben Olsen and new Toronto coach Ryan Nelsen, Petke now becomes the third member of D.C. United's 2004 MLS Cup-winning side to be currently coaching in MLS. Olsen of course, has shown signs of bringing D.C. United back to their early pre-eminence in the league, qualifying for the playoffs last year - and defeating New York in a game that Petke called "one of the biggest disappointments of the year". Petke could not have expected the chance to exact revenge so soon - the Red Bulls open this season's home campaign against D.C. United, with the two former team mates facing off as coaches.
Whether Petke gets to put his stamp on his side the way Olsen has remains to be seen. A locker room containing both Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill contains unique challenges for a first time coach, let alone a boardroom containing Houllier and Roxburgh, and beyond that the whims of the Austrian ownership. But Petke is determined he will be his own man, claiming on Thursday that there was no difference to how he was at 10.29 to how he was at 10.31 - the two minutes when he was announced to the squad as their new head coach.
Where Petke will match Olsen is in the goodwill from long-term fans that he will bring to the job. The former MetroStars support have grown wary of the Red Bulls' ownership, particularly in the area of recruitment, and while they'd been somewhat mollified by Roxburgh's comments since starting his job in December, and his apparent respect for the particular league knowledge of Petke and technical coach Ricardo Campos, the extended search for a coach had seemed like a familiar story. That was until the appointment of a man they see as one of their own.
There's no guarantee that the experiment will work out - for every Jason Kreis (who went from playing to coaching his RSL side to win MLS Cup and get to the final of the Concacaf Champions League), there are other first time coaches who have not yet proven they can make the transition. Jay Heaps was a local hero at New England but has yet to turn that goodwill into a competitive side (though in fairness he inherited a mess), while Olsen needed every bit of the goodwill the fans had for him as the wheels came off his team's campaign in the 2011 run-in. Petke's appointment may be a bellwether moment for his club and their relationship to the sporting culture of their country ("You can't be a satellite of Europe": Roxburgh), but that arguably increases the pressure on him to make the change of tack work.
Dan Dickinson, Gothamist:
I simultaneously love the move and am terrified of what will follow it. Petke is the closest thing RBNY has to a "face of the franchise". He has more heart and more dedication to the club than anyone else I can think of. Compared to all the other names tossed around over the last two months, he is easily (to steal Andy Roxburgh's line) the most appropriate choice in this context.
But with that level of dedication, and the shift in direction of hiring, comes high stakes for all involved. For Petke, his legacy is at stake - should the team falter too much this season, his star would fade. For the decision makers, a sacking with unclear reasons could set off a violent supporter's revolt, which is the last thing this club needs. And should this be the year NY finally puts something in the trophy case, everyone involved in this decision would be enshrined in league history. As the Viking Army's banner says: Victory or Valhalla.
Dan Ryazansky, Metrofanatic:
He knows this team. He knows this league. He is willing to learn and adapt. He knows the importance of building the team around American players. He is humble. He is one of the greatest Metros ever. He is inexperienced? So what?