Real Salt Lake may be in for a messy breakup after firing coach Mike Petke

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke shouts instructions to his players, during MLS soccer action between Real Salt Lake and Atlanta United at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Friday, May 24, 2019.

Herriman • The Freddy Juarez era began for Real Salt Lake on Monday with the former assistant coach taking over after the team fired Mike Petke, but it appears the team and its former coach may have a messy, prolonged breakup.

The Athletic reported Monday that Petke was given the opportunity to resign a few days prior to his firing, making him eligible for a payout in the low six figures. But when he opted not to quit, the organization decided to let him go.

The club expects Petke to fight for the salary left on this contract, which goes through the 2020 season, per the report. The former coach’s contract also had a morality clause that gave the organization grounds to fire him if he violated it, according to The Athletic. Petke’s salary has not been made public.

It appears that conversations with some of the club’s sponsors played a role in Petke’s firing. According to the report, some of the team’s top sponsors, including Zions Bank and Ford, let it be known they would reconsider their partnerships if Petke kept his job.

An RSL spokesperson declined comment when reached by The Salt Lake Tribune. Petke did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen shed light on his decision to fire Petke later in the day during an interview with KUTV. He addressed an exchange he had with some fans last week where he discussed the possibility of firing Petke, mentioning that different demographics were split on whether to keep him. In a video reviewed by The Tribune, Hansen said 90% of millennials wanted Petke gone, while 90% of older fans wanted him to stay.

Hansen told KUTV that the decision did not ultimately hinge on those conversations.

“The decision was 100 percent ours,” Hansen said. “I think it’s important if you’re an organization like Real that you listen, that we took the time over the two weeks to listen. Absolutely, though, the decision did not come from one group or the other.”

RSL fired Petke before he was set to return from a three-game suspension and $25,000 fine he received for berating officials and repeatedly saying a homophobic slur in Spanish after a July 24 Leagues Cup match against Tigres UANL. The club also suspended Petke for two weeks without pay, ordered him to take anger management courses and directed him not to make contact with the team during that time.

Longtime RSL mainstays Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Tony Beltran all spoke about Petke’s firing throughout the day. Beckerman said in an ESPN 700 radio interview that he was “a little surprised” when he heard the news. He added that he felt all Petke was doing during the tirade against the referees was fighting for the team.

“I’ve known Mike a really long time and I can tell you that he’s not a homophobe," Beckerman said. “I just think it was an incident that got away from him.”

Beltran, in an email to The Tribune, said Petke is “not a homophobe,” and “to call him so would be a dishonor to a man that I have known only to be inclusive and sensitive towards others.” Beltran added that the language Petke used toward the referees was “not in a desire to perpetuate hate towards any community,” and used “only due to lexical naivety.”

“The situation after the Tigres game is regrettable, and a clear moment where Mike’s passion to defend his players got the better of him,” Beltran said. “I wish Mike Petke and his family nothing but the best moving forward.”

Rimando shared this thoughts on the situation in a tweet that read, in part: “I know Mike, the whole person. I know Mike, the whole man. I hope you can all trust me when I say that this instance should not define him. It’s a very unfortunate turn of events.”

Meanwhile, Juarez conducted his first training with RSL on Monday morning as interim coach. He said the mood around the team was positive despite the controversy.

“The spirits seemed good,” Juarez said. “We had a good chat. The guys are good guys. It’s a good group. So it’s really just continue to guide them, making sure we don’t stop our standards at any point.”

Hansen pointed to an exchange Juarez had during the recent win over Sporting Kansas City. He said SKC coach Peter Vermes was yelling at an official during the game, and Juarez approached him to suggest he let the referees do their job. At that point, Hansen said, Juarez disengaged from the situation, a reaction the RSL owner praised for Juarez’s civility.

Hansen described Juarez as a “very soft-spoken, deliberate and strategic coach” and a “known commodity.” He added that be believes Juarez has the temperament he expects from a head coach.

“He’s the right man at the right time,” Hansen said of Juarez.

Juarez has coached at every level in the RSL organization. He started with the academy team before moving over to coach the Real Monarchs, and was an assistant coach on Petke’s staff. He is intimately familiar with several of the current RSL homegrown players, including Aaron Herrera, Sebastian Saucedo, Justen Glad and Brooks Lennon.

Juarez said he will approach the remainder of the season and the opportunity as interim head coach by just continuing to be himself.

“I have a style of play, I’ve coached in enough games,” Juarez said. "We have a good staff. We’ve always done our part as a staff. And now it’s just me being the guy that says the last word maybe, or the first word. It’s just continue to be me.”

The team’s next game is Wednesday against the Seattle Sounders at Rio Tinto Stadium.