Mike Petke still hears his father’s voice in his ears.
“Nonstop,” he says. “I always will.”
That stiff-and-sometimes-severe tone and tenor would be the ones echoing out of the mouth of Ed Petke, a rugged individual, now 74, who worked for the Long Island Railroad for the better part of four decades. Ed did small jobs and big ones, easy and hard. He labored like a grown man, taking 1:30 a.m.-to-noon shifts so he could be at the family’s house, a two-story colonial on Philips Street in Bohemia, NY, when his kids got home from school. He cared about them and wanted to be around them. But conscientious work was appreciated and valued and expected. In all that time, he took a mere three sick days.
There was one more thing, too.
“When he got mad, my dad was the most intimidating, scary man I’ve ever been around,” Petke says. “He was … demanding.”
Love was for family members and family matters. And there was plenty of that.
Intensity was for sports. And that never relented.
Ed was in town, visiting from New York, to watch his son coach Real Salt Lake to victory over Toronto FC at Rio Tinto last week, and Petke says it was as though the old codger had always been here. In Mike’s ears. In his face.
Calling for effort and excellence, giving nothing away.
Mike Petke has been RSL’s head coach for 26 months now. During that time, he’s lifted the team up, torn it down, rearranged it, lifted it back up again. He’s won 33 games, lost 31 and tied 12. He’s led his team into the MLS playoffs. On certain occasions, he’s said he did not care one iota whether his team won a specific game or lost it. He was — and is — more preoccupied with the inner workings of how it played, how much ground it covered, how much progress it made.
Sometimes, he screams at players. Sometimes, he hugs them. Sometimes, he’s flexible. Sometimes, he will not bend.
“He can be the rah-rah coach, can get us pumped up,” says RSL veteran Kyle Beckerman. “He can get into us, and really let us have it. He’s a motivator and a tactician.”
How effective of a coach he is, Petke believes, is left for others to decide. And maybe that determination is still spinning in the air, like a corner kick floating down in front of the goal, yet to be acted upon.
Beckerman, who has played for a number of mentors through a long and decorated career, calls Petke “super focused,” and says two things are absolutely certain: 1) He knows how to motivate, and 2) He pours all his capacity into planning and preparing for every match, every opponent.
“He’s … always trying to study the other team, how to best get at them with personnel and [strategy],” says Beckerman.
Petke has been known to turn his starting lineup around, depending on who performed well in training that week and what individual players and formations the team faces. Either way, he attempts to communicate to the players his reasons.
In the modern game, with modern athletes, the 43-year-old coach has had to learn to discern appropriate times for counseling, confrontation and consolation, choosing between screaming, scheming and singing praise. Regardless, he strives to make his message honest, raw and clear.
“It’s hard for me [to let up] … because of my dad,” Petke says. Yeah. He’s always there, chirping away.
The coach’s fire, much of which is all his own, can rage in any direction. At players. At officials. At incompetency and inefficiency. At himself.
“I don’t always get it right,” he admits.
He has been fined and suspended by MLS for losing his temper, for criticizing referees, for daring, for begging, the league to discipline him, for saying he infamously doesn’t “give a sh—.” He is one of the more candid and colorful characters in American soccer.
All he’s trying to be, he says, is himself, the kid Ed Petke reared and raised to be a responsible man, a no-excuse guy.
During one of the suspensions, Petke was banished to a box at Rio Tinto Stadium, from where, during the action on the pitch, the coach could be heard stringing together creative combinations of swear words. After awhile there was a rhythmic lyrical quality to his outbursts. It was downright artistic. You could have dropped a bed of Jack Johnson music to his expletives and they would have sweetly and not-so-sweetly rung out to his players down below.
In July of last season, during a well-publicized postgame interview, Petke flipped out in a way that was disturbing to some, and hailed by others. He was upset by an injustice that had occurred in front of his team’s goal, and ripped the officials in a most vigorous manner. He said, among other things: “ … I’ll take the fine. Fine me! I don’t care anymore. So drain my bank account. I don’t give a sh— anymore. OK?”
He punctuated that by throwing his headset to the ground and storming off.
He was suspended for two games and fined $10,000. The other time, he was busted for $5,000. All told, as an MLS player and coach, Petke guesses he’s been drained of “somewhere between $20 and $30 grand.”
He says he doesn’t plan it that way. It’s just Petke being Petke.
“I get to a point where I can’t hold it in,” he says. “It just comes out. I’m not proud of that stuff; that’s just who I am.”
He adds: “I come home and my wife says: ‘What the hell’s wrong with you?’”
His usual response: Uh, I dunno.
He just hears the noise in his ears, it skips off his brain, and it comes out of his mouth.
Let’s back up here.
Petke grew up on Long Island in that blue-collar neighborhood playing many sports. He was drawn to baseball — pitching and playing shortstop — and soccer, to basketball and wrestling, the last of which was dependent not just on aggression, but on being the baddest alpha dog in the room. Petke was conditioned to that competitive turbo-throttled environment.
Ed greased those skids. He was strict, an old-school disciplinarian who, despite having a bad back and a bad shoulder from painful work injuries, plowed on, no matter the obstacles. Like a lot of fathers out there from that generation, he figured if a job was worth doing, it was worth dragging your sorry carcass across the finish line to get it done right.
“My dad really pushed my buttons,” Petke says. “It was about being the best. … I remember times getting yelled at in the car if I didn’t play up to his standard. He was an unbelievable provider. He was loving. But he was tough when it came to sports. It was the biggest roller coaster you could ever climb on.”
Through the climbing, soccer called out to Petke.
He was recruited to a soccer-centric high school, St. John the Baptist, where he flourished as a goal-scoring defender. Petke went on to play at Southern Connecticut State, during which time he distinguished between “what I am good at and what I am not.” He was comprehensively good enough to be drafted by his hometown pro team, the New York MetroStars, which initiated a ricocheting 13-year professional career that included winning an MLS Cup with D.C. United in 2004.
After his playing days ended in 2010, Petke was hired into management by the Red Bulls, then got into coaching, which quickly became his passion. Despite seeing success as the head coach of the Red Bulls, the team for which he had played, he was fired after his second season, a sacking that triggered a backlash from angry fans. It also taught Petke an important lesson: His passion was planted, no matter how blind he had been to it in the past, in a very real — and sometimes harsh and political — business world.
“It taught me something I never wanted to learn,” he says.
Despite gaining subsequent pro coaching offers, Petke spent a couple of years working as director of coaching for the New Jersey Youth Soccer Association and broadcasting New York Cosmos games. Thereafter, Craig Waibel, Real Salt Lake’s general manager and a former player who had competed against Petke, called him to gauge his interest in coaching in Utah.
The notion was preposterous to the New Yorker. Seemed preposterous. But after talking with Waibel, Petke couldn’t sleep. That’s when he knew he wanted to go West. After another meeting, and being offered the job to coach the Real Monarchs, RSL’s second-level team, Petke suggested to his wife, Kim, that they might be moving to Utah. Her reaction? “Yeah, right.”
He was right.
Petke arrived to coach the Monarchs, and when Jeff Cassar was suddenly fired a couple of months later, he was elevated to the organization’s top team. He’s been there since March of the 2017 season.
Just like the roller coaster he rode growing up, Petke’s existence with Real has had its undulations. They won 13 games that first season, 14 in 2018, including qualifying for the MLS playoffs, in which RSL advanced through a knockout round before being eliminated.
This season, the club appeared primed for an upward swing, but bumped and skidded at the start to a current 6-6-1 record. RSL has won its last three games — including Friday night’s thrilling win over defending MLS champ Atlanta United — scoring eight goals en route, looking as though it could be making the push Petke strives for and craves.
The team has young standouts he is attempting to groove, alongside a sprinkling of veterans. He’s continually wanted a rocksteady build from the ground up, and there are moments of promise for him, moments of discouragement. Winning the MLS Cup is the eventual aim, but at present it remains the length of a couple of 70-yard goal kicks away. In that sense, RSL’s game against Atlanta was informative and encouraging to the coach and everyone else.
“We deserved that win, 100 percent,” Petke says.
Following Real’s earlier, soaring 3-0 win over Toronto FC, Petke was hardly bowled over. Afterward, he discussed some of the positives and, then, he hit the negatives. Straightforward and unvarnished as ever. There was much more work — always more work — to do, much more effort — always more effort — to give, in his mind.
With his father, the tough railroad man, forever beside him, and on that particular occasion literally in the building, it was in his ears, too.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.