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Real Salt Lake: Hard-nosed, no-nonsense Long Island roots driving force behind Mike Petke's success

Published April 15, 2017 2:06 pm

Soccer • Hard-nosed, no-nonsense Long Island roots are the driving force behind Mike Petke's success, first as a player and now as the new coach at Real Salt Lake.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Mike Petke had a preferred method of breaking news when he was a kid. He would gather together the whole family inside their blue-collar suburban home on Long Island, N.Y. It could've been a club soccer trip around New York or to Europe. Or an award for his abilities on the field. Or when he decided to enter the MLS draft.

Time went on, Petke's preference for the big family announcement didn't change, even as he developed into a 6-foot-2 no-nonsense center back with earrings, nose rings and bleach-blond hair. He would bring them together to announce where his pro career would continue. Or when it eventually would end.

So the Saturday before last Christmas, Petke, along with his wife and two sons, his siblings, their spouses and their kids, all invaded Ed and Catherine Petke's home in Bohemia, N.Y.



The grandkids were in the basement. The adults were upstairs in the kitchen. Petke's older sister, Suzanne, was battling breast cancer. A round of chemotherapy was scheduled for Christmas weekend, so the Petke family reconvened a little earlier than normal. Suzanne had that all-too-familiar feeling: Her little brother, one of her best friends, grabbed her by the shoulder.

"Sue," Petke said, "I'm going to do this again. I'm going to make an announcement."

Gathered in the kitchen, he told everyone that he was back. Petke was a coach again less than two years after his stunning firing as New York Red Bulls coach. And he could not control the emotion of the moment, no matter how much he wanted to.

"He just started crying and said, 'You know how miserable I've been for the last two years,'" said Petke's mother, Catherine. "And we did know it."

Then Petke announced where. In suburban Salt Lake City with a USL outfit, a minor-league affiliate of Real Salt Lake called Real Monarchs. Four months later, Petke would be promoted to become the fourth coach ever at RSL.

'Trust me, mom'

Ed Petke worked on the Long Island railroad for 35 years and purposely worked those early shifts from 4 a.m. to noon, so that when his three children arrived home from school, he could be there waiting. They grew up in what Mike Petke describes as a standard, middle-class neighborhood.

"I could drive around a neighborhood here in Utah and it reminds me of where I grew up," Mike Petke said recently, seated inside an empty Rio Tinto Stadium.

The youngest, Mike, was a perfectionist from an early age.

"Whatever he did," Ed Petke said, "he just went into it."

"Maybe it was a third child syndrome," Catherine Petke joked. "The other two baby books were full and his was empty. I don't know."

"It was like he saw his future," sister Suzanne said, "and saw what he wanted."

Like any young athlete, Petke wanted to impress his parents, siblings, friends and coaches. His talent eventually was recognized and he was invited to a prestigious private school, St. John the Baptist in West Islip, N.Y. The Petkes remortgaged their home more than once to pay for his tuition. Petke went on to win state and national titles.

After spending three years at Southern Connecticut State, he left a semester early and threw his name into the 1998 MLS draft. Petke was drafted over the loud speaker at halftime during a combine for college seniors in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He didn't hear it clearly at first.

"Very no frills," he said.

The team he loved, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, snagged him in the first round in 1998. The next 13 professional seasons spanned three clubs, including stops — and an MLS Cup championship — with D.C. United, Colorado Rapids and eventually back home with the Red Bulls.

"He always seems to know his direction," Catherine Petke said. " 'Trust me, mom. Trust me.' Those were his words."

'He was always fighting with somebody'

The reason behind the bleached-hair look was so Mike Petke's parents easily could pick him out on the pitch. Mom never totally bought that.

"I think if you know the way he played," Petke's mother said, "you never missed him. He was always fighting with somebody."

"He wouldn't start it," Ed Petke said, "but usually he could finish it."

Catherine Petke once was summoned to the office in middle school where she was informed Mike had gotten into a quarrel with another student. Mike told his mother it wasn't his fault, that he didn't start the scuffle. She believed her son. She explained to the principal that she wasn't condoning the fight, "but he'll be the first one to throw the second punch."

Once in MLS, Petke soon realized he wasn't as skilled as most teammates or opponents. So he had to find an edge. He had to prove he could stay at that level. When opposing attacking players tried to embarrass him with stepovers or nutmegs, Petke found it easier to drop down for a rough tackle.

"Put in an honest effort," he said. "Every day."

One of Petke's most memorable run-ins ironically came with former RSL coach Jason Kreis. Petke, bleached hair and all, took exception to an elbow thrown by Kreis, then with the Dallas Burn. The two exchanged pleasantries before Petke tapped Kreis with a headbutt and proceeded to take on the entire Dallas team.

In his first year as coach of the Red Bulls in 2013, Petke's tough-nosed reputation continued when he and megastar Thierry Henry got into a heated altercation during a training session. Petke then benched Henry. And New York went on to win the Supporters' Shield.

"That was huge," said Robin Fraser, a former Red Bulls assistant under Petke. "He got pushed and there's always a fine line with 'big players.' And at the end of the day, he wasn't afraid to step in and show who's in charge."

'Now what?'

Dylan Petke loves Buffalo wings. So when Petke had to muster the strength to tell his elder son that he was taking the job as coach of the Monarchs last December, wings were going to be the avenue in which he broke the news. But by the time the wings had arrived, father and son both were bawling.

Petke got the check and the wings to go.

Four months later, Dylan and Mason Petke were at America First Field, RSL's training grounds, bouncing soccer balls off trampoline nets while their dad marched around barking instructions to his new team. Petke was named coach of RSL on March 29. His second go as an MLS coach requires his blueprint to recover from a lackluster start.

"He's a really passionate person and a passionate coach and passionate player," Fraser said. "The things that he says, he says with great conviction and because of that, it's immediately visible to the players. And I think that connection with the players is important."

Petke won't have his family in Utah until the summer. They decided when Petke took the Monarchs job that the ideal scenario would be for the boys to finish their school year then make the trek west. Still, Petke laughs discussing the hectic past few months. And tears form when he says how Kim pushed him to get back to doing what he loved.

"She knows that I'm a coach, she knows I want to coach," he said. "She knew what she was getting into. She bought into it."

And thankfully, Catherine Petke said, no longer is there an elephant in the room. The Red Bulls firing shook up Petke more than anything his loved ones had seen. He joked at his introductory news conference that after two years of therapy he was "finally over it."

"It knocked him down pretty hard," sister Suzanne said, "in a way that none of us had really ever seen happen to him."

That's in the past now. Petke said he's no longer dragging that memory around with him "like a ball-and-chain." The good of the past four months has done away with the heartbreak. None more so than the evening phone call home he made March 28. Petke dialed his parents, who were watching Dylan and Mason while Kim visited Utah.

"Is the other one there?" Petke asked. "Sit down. I just want to tell you both here one time."

Ed and Catherine Petke's hearts sank.

"Now what?" they thought.

ckamrani@sltrib.com

Twitter: @chriskamrani —

About Mike Petke

Age » 41

Hometown » Bohemia, N.Y.

Playing days » New York MetroStars (1998-2002), D.C. United (2003-2005), Colorado Rapids (2005-2008), New York Red Bulls (2009-2010).

Coaching background » Hired as RSL coach March 29, Real Monarchs coach in December 2016, New York Red Bulls coach (2013-2014), Red Bulls assistant (2011-2012).

RSL at Colorado

P At Commerce City, Colo.

Kickoff » 7 p.m.

TV » KMYU

 

 

 

 

 

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