By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When Scottish soccer hero Andy Roxburgh was named as the new sporting director of the New York Red Bulls last November, he made one promise. He would consider bringing in an American to be the new head coach of the club.
“It could be an American,” Roxburgh said at the time. “We don’t want to rush to judgment here. We want the best. Clearly, it would be an advantage if someone coaches in MLS. If the head coach isn’t American, then one of the two assistants will be an American. We have enough quality American coaches and we know the importance of having an American coach. First of all, we’re in America.”
So as Roxburgh flirted with the idea of Gary McAllister and actually offered the position to Argentine Paulo Sousa, only to find that Sousa was experiencing working visa problems, the guy who was holding on to an interim tag remained patient, although he never officially received a formal interview for the permanent slot.
“If they decided to go with someone else, I never would have had a problem,” Mike Petke said. “But I believed that I was always more than ready. I’m more than capable. I always put this club ahead of me in everything I do.”
Last Thursday, Petke was rewarded for his patience, as Roxburgh lifted the interim tag and made Petke, one of the most popular players in the history of the franchise, as the new head coach.
The 36-year-old Petke spent eight seasons as a player and two as an assistant coach with the Red Bulls franchise, which, as most soccer fans remember, was formerly known as the MetroStars.
Petke was drafted in the first round of the 1998 MLS Draft and became the franchise’s all-time leader in games played with 169, games started with 158 and minutes played with 14,060. A tough and physical defender during his playing days, earning one berth in the MLS All-Star Game, Petke easily became identifiable with the MetroStars and Red Bulls faithful.
And in naming Petke has the head coach, Roxburgh also lived up to another of his prophecies.
“We’re going to try our best to get a local identity and a style that fans can identify with,” said Roxburgh, a former Scottish national player who was once a teammate of famed Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Since 1994, Roxburgh served as the firstever technical director of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), before taking on the new challenge with the Red Bulls.
So Roxburgh understands the concept of loyalty and identity with a soccer club, something the Red Bulls, who have become an almost entirely transient squad in recent years, especially with a revolving door operating in terms of the team’s head coaching position.
Petke had been serving as the team’s interim head coach after former coach Hans Backe’s contract was not renewed at the end of the 2012 season.
With the MLS regular season set to begin March 3 and the team already in training in Bradenton, Florida, a move had to be made, so Roxburgh decided to lift the interim tag off Petke.
“From the minute he took over as the interim coach, Mike has been enthusiastic and organized,” Roxburgh said in a conference call announcing the hiring. “Mike is very experienced in the ways of MLS. If we brought in a coach from Europe, that might not be the case. Mike knows the league and he’s passionate about this organization and team. All of those things add up to make him the appropriate choice.”
Petke, who has no head coaching experience, other than running the day-to-day operations of the Red Bulls since Backe’s departure, does not believe he was the alternative choice.
“I cannot believe in my mind that Red Bull needed to rush something, just because we opened training camp,” said Petke, who helped D.C. United win the MLS Cup in 2004 and played a bit with Colorado, before returning to the Red Bulls in 2008. “I think my interview process began when they turned to me and asked me to take the reins in November. I think Andy saw me in action. I’m not the least bit slighted that they might have looked elsewhere before me.”
Roxburgh explained the flirtation with experienced coaches like McAllister, who could not come to terms on an agreement, and Sousa, who reportedly had work visa problems.
“It was very important to see all options,” Roxburgh said. “I had spoken to a number of people about the position. For whatever reason, it didn’t work out. But I always thought I would like to have a young and hungry coach, who is adaptable. As we went through the process, we didn’t rush anything we did. I did have a deadline that I wanted to have a coach by the time the players came to camp. The players had to know.”
Roxburgh is firm about his decision to hire an unproven Petke.
“Everyone is behind Mike, no question,” Roxburgh said. “We told the players this morning and they were very supportive. Mike is one of their guys. He’s a pro. He’s humble and hard working. He has to start somewhere. He brings so many qualities to the job.”
Roxburgh believes that it was important that the new head coach be an American.
“We can’t be a satellite for Europe,” Roxburgh said. “We need to have our own roots right here. The heart and soul of this club is America-based and it starts with our coach. He’s someone with MLS experience and someone from the U.S.”
Petke is ready for the challenge. The Red Bulls were eliminated in the first round of last season’s MLS Playoffs by D.C. United. The franchise has never won a MLS Cup title.
“I know the players,” Petke said. “I’ve been around this team for a while. I’m not going to do anything differently. I’m going to do what’s in the best interest of the club.”
There was no announcement made about assistant coaches, but there were rumors swirling last week that Kearny native Tony Meola, who did receive an interview for the head coaching slot, could be brought on to be an assistant coach with Petke. The two were teammates together a few years ago.
It could definitely enhance the local flavor of the team, if one of the most storied homegrown products had an identity as an assistant coach, so stay tuned.
The Red Bulls open the 2013 season March 3 against Portland.