Mike Petke's emphasis on a winning culture has helped the Red Bulls to the top of the MLS standings. (Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports)
HARRISON, N.J. -- It all felt “So Metro”, as beleaguered New York soccer supporters might say.
The crowd should have been much larger. But unfortunate scheduling (a Sunday evening opposite a Jets game at the Meadowlands) likely limited the turnout for a very big game played in perfect September weather.
Riding a three-game win streak and well aware that an additional three points would lift them into the overall league lead, the New York Red Bulls started strong against visiting FC Dallas. But the goal didn’t come.
Defender David Carney barely missed on an early free kick. A 17th-minute blast from Eric Alexander somehow struck the post after hitting FCD’s George John and then rolled to grateful goalkeeper Raúl Fernandez. Shortly thereafter, newcomer Bradley Wright-Phillips appeared to be in alone on goal when he abruptly pulled up with a strained hamstring.
The pressure inside Red Bull Arena was mounting. Something would go wrong, like it almost always does for a club whose former name – MetroStars -- has been shortened to a lament used as a crutch by tortured fans.
“I’ve been a part of so many games like this the last two years on the coaching staff and countless times in my career with New York as a player,” Red Bulls coach Mike Petke told SI.com. “We limited them to two shots on goal and we just had countless opportunities that wouldn’t fall.”
Petke, in his first season in charge, admitted after the final whistle that it was the sort of match his club would have lost in the past. But that didn’t happen Sunday. New York held its nerve and in the 76th minute, Jonny Steele saw his low cross steered home by Dallas defender Erick. This time, it was the opponent that buckled.
The Red Bulls won their fourth straight game, 1-0, and now lead the MLS pack at 15-9-6, one point above the surging Seattle Sounders (who have two games in hand). New York hasn’t won a major trophy in its 17-plus years of existence and the difference between one and none is massive. The club never has been first in the Supporters Shield race this late in the season. The Sept. 29 showdown in Seattle looms historically large.
Petke said he understands why hype is building, but he refuses to engage. Winning the Supporters Shield would be nice, but it isn’t the goal. So much can happen during the course of an MLS month. Individual games, plays or bounces don't define a team. Instead, the 37-year-old coach is focused on establishing a culture that will produce a competitive team over the long term. He's aiming for relevance, not a regular season title.
“It’s great that people are excited and optimistic. But having said that, just look at our next game in Seattle. Probably 60,000 fans there and a team that’s in phenomenal form right now on prime-time TV -- ESPN. I mean, if we win this game, have we arrived? No,” Petke told SI.com. “We’re a bad four games away from not making the playoffs. No matter what, tides turn very quickly. To talk about the Supporters Shield for myself and my players is very ill-advised and very premature.”
Next Sunday’s game isn’t winner-take-all. Thierry Henry, who typically skips matches on artificial turf, probably won’t play. Defensive stalwart Jámison Olave likely will miss out as well.
“It is a big game, but the health of [Henry] as one of our key players is extremely important,” Petke told reporters on Tuesday. “I wouldn’t 100 percent rule him out, but going by history, I wouldn’t hold out a ton of hope that he would be playing on turf this weekend. But you never know.”
Regarding Olave, the manager said, “You go back to yes, it is an important game. But is it important enough to risk a key defender for the remainder of the year? I don’t think so.”
Later, Petke downplayed the potential absences to SI.com.
“We’re not throwing the towel in,” he said. “Our expectations aren’t any less, not a smidgen less, then if we had them. At the end of the day, it’s about the game plan and the players buying into the game plan and what we want to accomplish.”
What Petke wants to accomplish is the construction of a club that locals like him (he hails from Long Island) can be proud of. That’s a big reason he was promoted in January. The Red Bulls lacked roots, respect and the important intangibles. They withered under pressure and revolved around the individual rather than the collective. In Petke, New York now has a leader who can marry Real Salt Lake’s “the team is the star” ethos to Red Bull’s spending power.
The signs were there against Dallas.
“Those are games that in the past, perhaps we would’ve had individuals who were a little too eager to get that goal and in and got us out of shape,” he said. “We won three previous games in a row and maybe it would’ve gotten to us in the past and we would collapse under the pressure.”
And the signs have been there for nearly a month.
On Aug. 29, Petke and Henry were involved in a heated confrontation during practice that ended when Red Bulls staff separated the pair and the famous Frenchman left the training ground.
Henry was benched at the start of the Aug. 31 match against D.C. United. New York was winless in its previous three games and had just lost to Chivas USA, but there was a bigger picture that took precedence. There always have been whispers that Henry was the leading voice in the Red Bull Arena locker room. Many wondered whether a World Cup and UEFA Champions League winner would respond to an MLS lifer like Petke. But the unheralded coach ended that speculation for good, stood up to his star and marshaled his team to a 2-1 win over D.C. The Red Bulls haven’t looked back.
On Tuesday, Petke denied there was a correlation between that moment and the four-game win streak.
“With 90 percent of the rest of the team, if that had happened it never would have been a blip on the radar. It was with Thierry Henry, so of course it was huge news,” he said. “It’s a situation that happens throughout the world in every sport and in Fortune 500 companies. This is part of life, disagreements and tempers. Am I pointing to it as the reason why we turned around? No. Did it possibly add to the list of factors that have helped us win the last four games? Perhaps, yes. But it was just a situation that happened and happens all over the world. It’s much ado about nothing.”
In isolation, Petke surely is right. But the incident symbolized something larger. Henry’s benching suggested a shift toward a culture in which no player is bigger than the team. The way the coach has downplayed it since also hints at his own ability to shrug off slights, avoid damaging grandstanding and ensure that the collective remains paramount.
“I’ve said to them, this is a dictatorship in certain instances but a democracy in certain others,” he said. “I want feedback and we need that. If there’s not understanding for everybody, if you walk away and say ‘I understand’ but really don’t, it’s going to damage the team. I enjoy the feedback and the conversations and the questioning at times of what we’re doing. It’s only going to make us better.”
Petke refused to take any credit for the Red Bulls’ run to first place.
“The players have an identity. They have character. They have fight in them and above all, most importantly, the ability to manage games,” he said. “I think if I had any role in that identity and character it’s because they know who I am as a person and a coach and they know my mentality and what I expect. But I give all credit to the players for being humble enough, mature enough, professional enough, to overcome certain things, to put their own personal agendas aside for the betterment of the team, to come together and push each other in a way we haven’t seen in the past.”
He’d rather discuss those things than the Shield. A trophy might end some Red Bull embarrassment, but it won’t get the club to where it needs to be. New York is a bottom line town. As much as MLS insiders and hardcore fans respect the Shield, it won’t plant Red Bull Arena permanently on the region’s sporting map. Petke pointed out that it was the 10-6 Giants who earned a parade in early 2008, not the 16-0 Patriots.
“It’s about the championship,” Petke said.
And about the culture he’s building. The Red Bulls have impressive depth and are one of only two MLS teams on which at least seven players have tallied four league goals (RSL, not surprisingly, is the other). They have moved past injuries and difficult defeats that might have waylaid their predecessors. It is a culture that will develop with or without the Shield and whether or not the Red Bulls win an MLS Cup this year or next. Petke believes it will produce results but exists apart from them, and he’s convinced it’s already taking root. He didn’t need a Dallas own goal to see that.
“Of course New York fans in all sports are fickle. It’s championship or bust,” he said. “For all our supporters and for who they are and how long they’ve been here, many have been here since 1998 when I joined the team, of course they want nothing more than a championship. But I think equally, they would want nothing more than to be proud of the players that are out there. Players they can identify with, that respect the club and the game and the supporters and what they do, who work hard for the organization and put everything on the line. If we were to lose that Dallas game 1-0 but we put in an effort and a never-say-die attitude and did everything to the best of our ability, I don’t think we’re getting booed. I know we’re not getting booed.”