Confetti swirled around the 2004 MLS Cup champions, sticking to Nick Rimando’s forehead, still damp from the the exertion of the match. Behind him stood Mike Petke, championship hat already on his head.
Packed in among their D.C. United teammates on the platform, they threw their hands in the air and cheered as MLS commissioner Don Garber handed over the trophy.
Petke became Rimando’s coach at Real Salt Lake 12 1/2 years later.
Thus started a process both were familiar with: renegotiating pre-established relationships. New boundaries rose up in an unspoken understanding between player and coach. Rimando and Petke will reminisce with D.C. coach Ben Olsen about their playing days together at D.C. United leading up to their upcoming matchup Saturday, but Rimando and Petke aren’t grabbing drinks together after games.
“If you were fraternizing, if you’re crossing certain lines, it makes it much more difficult for you to get your point across and get that respect from a coaching standpoint,” Petke said. “But it doesn’t mean you just shut off completely.”
Rimando had a much quicker turnaround with Jason Kreis, who went from player to coach mid-season in 2007. The two were only teammates for about two months before Kreis retired to shift into a coaching role.
Rimando and Petke had longer to bond. They spent two and a half years as teammates, from 2003 through part of 2005. They went through a coaching change together and claimed an MLS Cup together.
“I think he expects a lot from me because he knows me as a player and played with me,” Rimando said about Petke. “Knows my tendencies and knows the type of player I am and can be, and I think coming here he made it known that he wanted me on this team to be a leader, and that’s what I need to give him.”
Petke has coached former teammates since the beginning of his career. But he eased into it with the New York Red Bulls, transitioning from player to assistant to coach.
When Petke took the Red Bulls coaching job in 2013, his former teammate Thierry Henry headlined the squad he would lead the Supporters’ Shield. That history didn’t stop Petke from benching Henry when the two got into a heated exchange in an August training session.
Petke took the RSL job last season, where the veteran leaders of the group also were his former teammates: Rimando and Kyle Beckerman.
He continues to rely on both of them for leadership and input, but Petke now gets the final say. There’s a mutual respect between the three of them, but there’s a line drawn before friendship.
Olsen, who raised the 2004 MLS Cup with Rimando and Petke, is on a similar timeline as Petke. He also was hired by his longtime club — in Olsen’s case D.C. — as an assistant coach immediately after hanging up his cleats. Olsen was promoted to coach in November of 2010 after one season as an assistant.
Young coaches, the way Beckerman sees it, approach training in a similar way, reflecting their preferences as a player.
“And they understand the suffering of the game,” Beckerman said. “... You can’t tell, but everyone’s tired out there. Everyone’s breathing hard. And it’s about managing those times and finding the second and third wind, and those guys know that because they remember what it feels like. So I enjoy having coaches that played pretty recently.”
Rimando and Petke said they recognize Olsen’s personality as a player imprinted on D.C. United’s identity. Olsen, who was the youngest full-time coach in MLS history when he was hired is now the longest-tenured coach in D.C. United history.
“I think early in his [coaching] career when he came here first time,” Rimando said, “it wasn’t the big names on the back. It was the players that would run through a wall, and he wanted guys to fight. And that’s what he was: he was a fighter, he was scrappy.”
While D.C. has loosened the purse strings recently, as evident in reports that Wayne Rooney has agreed to a deal in principle with D.C., that’s still the type of team RSL is set to face Saturday.
D.C. UNITED AT REAL SALT LAKE
Where • Rio Tinto Stadium
Kickoff • 7 p.m. Saturday
TV • KMYU
Radio • 700 AM
Records • D.C. 1-4-2; RSL 3-5-1
Last meeting • RSL won 1-0 (Aug. 12 at RFK Stadium)
About DC • D.C. United’s last win at Real Salt Lake came on Oct. 5, 2005. … Darren Mattocks and Yamil Asad both have scored a game-winner against RSL. … Mattocks currently leads United in goals (3), and Asad paces the team in shots on goal (5). … Taylor Kemp (groin), Russell Canouse (knee), Junior Moreno (hamstring) and Chris Odoi-Atsem (calf) are out for the game.
About RSL • Goalkeeper Nick Rimando is one win shy of 200 entering Saturday’s match against his former club. … Captain Kyle Beckerman has scored six goals in the all-time series against D.C. United. … Midfielder Luke Mulhollnad is listed as questionable for the match. … Goalkeeper Alex Horwath (achilles), midfielder Jordan Allen (knee) and defenders Shawn Barry (knee), Demar Phillips (ankle), David Horst (knee) and Tony Beltran (knee) are sidelined due to injury.