Real Salt Lake fires coach Mike Petke over homophobic tirade against referees

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune). Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke walks the sidelines during MLS soccer action between Real Salt Lake and Atlanta United at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Friday, May 24, 2019.

At first glance, it appeared that Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke was merely doing what he so often does: yell at referees over something about which he was passionate. But as more details trickled out, it became clear that this time, it was different. And after three weeks that included three separate suspensions, a fine and other sanctions, Petke is out of a job.

RSL terminated Petke’s contract late Sunday and named assistant Freddy Juarez as the interim head coach for the remainder of the 2019 season.

“After further deliberations and a series of constructive discussions internally and with various members of our community, we have concluded, pursuant to his employment agreement, to immediately terminate Mike Petke’s employment,” the club said in a statement.

Petke was scheduled to return to the team Monday, which would have marked the end of a two-week suspension without pay levied against him by RSL. The club also asked Petke to not have contact with the team during his suspension and ordered him to take anger management classes. He was also about to end a three-game suspension handed down by Major League Soccer.

The league sanctioned Petke and fined him $25,000 for directing a homophobic slur in Spanish to referees after the July 24 Leagues Cup game against Tigres UANL. Leagues Cup also issued him a three-game suspension from that tournament.


Mike Petke’s record as head coach of Real Salt Lake (Won, loss draw)

2017 • 13-13-4

2018 • 14-13-7

2019 • 9-9-3

Total • 36-35-14

After RSL lost to Tigres, Petke was seen yelling at referees vociferously after receiving a red card. It was later revealed that Petke had repeatedly hurled a homophobic slur to the referees both on the field and in the tunnel of Rio Tinto Stadium shortly afterward. He also confronted the referees in the tunnel with a handwritten sign that displayed the slur.

In recent days, many have spoken out against Petke’s comments. Robbie Rogers, the first out gay player in MLS, said he was “sort of shocked” when he learned about the former coach’s behavior. The Professional Soccer Referees Association and Equality Utah also condemned Petke’s actions.

And in what looked like an impromptu discussion with fans after Wednesday’s Utah Royals FC game, RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen said he was considering firing Petke, and had already conducted or planned to conduct a meeting with team officials and sponsors.

“At Real Salt Lake, we have the privilege to represent our great community and fans here locally and on a national and global basis,” the club said. “We hold all of our coaches, players, executives and staff to the highest standards of professionalism. As an organization, it is vital that everyone, particularly our leadership, reflects and embodies our core values and the values of our community, treating all people with respect, civility and professionalism. Moreover, throughout our 15-year history, we have championed diversity, acceptance and inclusion throughout our organization, our stadiums and our community. This is a responsibility that we take very seriously.”

In Petke’s absence, RSL has not lost a game. The club had comeback wins against Sporting Kansas City and New York City FC, and drew against FC Dallas. Juarez manned the sidelines for all three games.

Since Petke joined the club as head coach, he served a total of three suspensions — the most recent one, a two-game ban in 2018, and a one-game suspension in 2017. Those games were also coached by Juarez, and all resulted in draws.

Petke came to RSL just after the start of the 2017 season after spending about three months as head coach of the Real Monarchs. He took the club to the playoffs in 2018 and led it on an impressive run before eventually falling to Sporting KC in the Western Conference semifinals.