Mike Petke sat at the table in the media room of Banc of California Stadium bewildered. He had just coached Real Salt Lake to a 3-2 win over Los Angeles Football Club in the knockout round, a game that saw a young team overcome a deficit in hostile territory when it needed it most.
When asked to explain how RSL pulled off the win nobody thought it could, he described himself as “frazzled” before collecting his thoughts, praising his opponent and lauding his team’s tactical performance.
But in between those comments, a brief moment of self-reflection escaped from Petke’s lips so nonchalantly that it would have been easy to miss.
“I think maybe I lose this game last year or at my last job,” Petke said.
It was a comment not unlike others he often makes when reacting to a question in a moment when emotions were high. Sometimes, he exaggerates. Other times, much to his chagrin, a comment of his gets taken out of context.
But there was a kernel of truth to Petke’s words about the win over LAFC. He was acutely aware of his road record up to that point, and of the odds against playing a team of that caliber on its home field.
He is also aware of his stubborn nature and his inclination to play a certain style regardless of opponent, even if it means losing a game. In light of that, yes, he would have lost to LAFC in a previous year.
But he didn’t. Not this year. Not this time. And it’s all part of his continuous evolution as a coach.
Petke grew up in Bohemia, New York, a small town on Long Island, in a blue-collar household where his father, Ed, raised him and his older siblings with an “iron fist.” While his family wasn’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, Petke described his upbringing as “heaven.”
Petke’s a fiery side that stems from his upbringing, he said, as well him feeling like he has a perpetual chip on his shoulder. He didn’t go to the fanciest schools. He wasn’t the absolute best soccer player. He had to scratch and claw for everything he got in his career, which features an MLS Cup title in 2004, two caps with the United States Men’s National Soccer Team, and several accolades in high school and college.
Petke carries that hard-nosed attitude and displays it when coaching his players. But even he know’s he can’t be that intense all the time.
So he’s constantly navigating when to show tough love, and when to use silence to get his points across, he said. But no matter what method he chooses, Petke makes sure he is always honest with his players because that’s the treatment he wanted when he played.
“He shows his character,” Sunday “Sunny” Stephen said of Petke. “What he wants from you, he tells you.”
And Petke has had to tell his players some difficult things. He has used at least 26 different lineups this season. Almost every time he makes a change, he said, he makes a point to discuss it with or at least mention it to the player he elects to sit.
So far, that has gone over well with the team.
“He’s doing a really good job making sure everybody’s on their toes, making sure the guys that maybe haven’t seen some minutes are ready to go when asked, when we need them,” Kyle Beckerman said.
Corey Baird said Petke has created a standard that his players always need to be ready to play, and always know what’s expected of them whether they’re in the game or on the bench.
“No matter who’s in the game, everyone knows what they’re expected [to do] throughout the game, they know that standard they have to uphold. And if they’re not going to do that, they’re not going to be on the field,” Baird said. “I think he’s done a good job throughout the year, throughout trainings, just making sure that we have that standard.”
Petke didn’t always play soccer. As a kid, he was a four-sports athlete, competing in wrestling, basketball, baseball and soccer. Until 10th grade, soccer was the sport he focused on least.
Nonetheless, he was named an All-American while playing soccer at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School, and won an NCAA Division II championship at Southern Connecticut State University in 1995. His 13-year journeyman MLS career began three years after that with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.
After his retirement in 2010, Petke took a front office job with the Red Bulls before joining the coaching staff as an assistant. The organization made a head coaching change in 2013, which led to Petke getting the job an interim basis, but he was promoted out of interim status a few short months later.
At the helm of New York, Petke led the team to a Supporters’ Shield in his first season. The Red Bulls, however, fired him after the next season.
Without a coaching job, Petke turned to broadcasting while waiting for his next opportunity. He only did it for a short time, but it helped him see the game in an entirely different light.
In his first year coaching the Red Bulls, he was “literally like a fan,” following the ball — and only the ball — as he watched from the sidelines. Working in the booth and being forced to watch every player on the field at the same time, while also having to provide color commentary on the game as a whole, helped him notice the nuances of what transpired on the pitch.
It’s at the point now where he’s watching so many things at once that he rarely sees RSL’s goals as they happen because he was busy watching his back line, or the buildup, or his team’s positioning.
“I think that little bit of time in between, watching from above with a microphone and everything and talking about the game, that definitely changed my view on things,” Petke said.
Petke’s views are still evolving, but there are times he allows his rigidity to overtake him for the greater good.
The coach has said at various points throughout this season that he accepted the RSL job because he felt excited about the way the organization develops its young players through its academy. He likes the idea of having that talent at his disposal, ready to be challenged and molded into first-teamers.
But as is often the case, young players come with a learning curve. And Petke believes putting his players in certain situations might cost them one game, but it will benefit them in the long run.
“I know that [with] some of the decisions I make, at the end, we’re going to be the underdogs or at the end, they might not pay dividends in that game,” Petke said. “But what I’m always hoping and almost pushing for is that it’s going to pay dividends in the next game, the next week, the next month, the following year.”
Those types of decisions, he said, don’t scare him, even though he knows may catch some heat for them. But part of his nature is to fight for what he believes, however unpopular it may be to the outside world.
“That’s something that, perhaps, is not correct,” Petke said. “That’s something that I’m fighting with internally all the time. But it’s part of the evolution of coaching.”
Petke moved into the head coaching job for Real in late March of last year, replacing former coach Jeff Cessar. He was hired to coach the Real Monarchs just three months prior.
Petke inherited a team that started 0-2-2 last season and had only scored one goal in its first four games. The timing of his hire meant he had to find a way to turn things around without a training camp. RSL ended the season missing the playoffs by just one point.
But even with a training camp this season, which Petke said was quite impactful to the team’s success, he finds himself looking back at how he’d change the way the year started. When he looks back at training camp, he sees ways he could have put more emphasis on this aspect, or less emphasis on that aspect.
“It was a huge learning experience because every group is different,” Petke said of this season’s training camp. “There are things that I did perhaps five years ago at the other job that would have been perfect. But, different players, different mentality, different ages, different experience levels.”
That specified second-guessing comes from Petke’s experience as a player, when he picked up on not only the ways he loved being coached, but also the ways his previous things that did not sit well with him. The good far outweighs the bad, he said, but it’s what he didn’t like that he learned from the most and applies to his own coaching style.
“I think I that more harped on things that didn’t work out or ways that coaches treated situations that I felt were wrong that really stuck with me, as opposed to all the great things that they’ve done,” Petke said.
Petke will admit that he’s still relatively young in his coaching career. But he knows what his philosophies are. He knows who he is as a coach. He knows he has a reputation of being prickly, stubborn, even misanthropic at times.
But underneath, Petke is still finding this way to coaching balance. During RSL’s recent playoff run, his introspection has started to show. And he’s not done yet.
“I’m certainly not a finished product — at all,” Petke said. “Part of me is not even a started product. I’m young in my career and I’m fighting my urge a lot to do exactly what I want to do based off of the pulse of the team, what the team’s capabilities are or how willing the team are to accept your new things. It’s constantly evolving.”
REAL SALT LAKE AT SPORTING KANSAS CITY
At Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, KS
Kickoff » Sunday, 1 p.m. MDT
TV » ESPN
Radio » 700 AM
Regular Season » RSL 14-13-7, SKC 18-8-8
Last meeting » RSL 1, SKC 1 (Leg 1, Western Conference semifinals)
About Sporting KC » Will look to keep more possession at home after having only 33 percent of it in Leg 1. … Went 8-6-3 at home in the regular season, tied for best in the West. … Tallied more shots on target (six) than RSL (three) in the first leg. … Diego Rubio scored SKC’s lone goal in less than a minute of being subbed in. Head Coach Peter Vermes said he expects a hard-fought deciding game.
About RSL » Albert Runsák is suspended from Sunday’s game due to yellow card accumulation. Rusnák scored the lone goal in Leg 1. … Marcelo Silva is listed as questionable with an adductor injury. He started the Leg 1 game last week. … Will advance outright if it scores two or more goals in a tie. … Tied SKC 1-1 in each of the last two games. … Damir Kreilach was fined by the league for simulation/embellishment in the Nov. 4 game against LAFC.