During a week that has seen a lot discussion of players like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and the larger concept of what it means to be a club icon, Red Bull New York has cut ties with theirs. After two seasons in charge, Mike Petke has been fired as the team’s head coach. Jesse Marsch will have the unenviable task of replacing a team legend.
More than any of what feels like thousands of players or dozens of coaches that have come through the team’s doors — more than bigger names like Thierry Henry or Juan Pablo Ángel; more than star coaches like Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley — Mike Petke was the embodiment of the team, in whatever form it took. MetroStars and Red Bull fans never argued that Petke was the best defender in the league, or the most brilliant tactician in its coaching ranks, but he was ours.
Mike played the way we would have, said the things wanted to say and treated the club the same way one of its battle-weary supporters would have if they were given a uniform. The Long Island native became a cult figure for his brash style and physical (even by early MLS standards) play as a defender. He was tailor made for the Tri-State area. His return to the team for the final two seasons of his career in 2009, coinciding with the opening of Red Bull Arena, cemented Petke’s permanent place in folklore for however long the franchise lasts.
Petke’s appointment as an assistant coach in 2011 was celebrated like a playoff win. When he was promoted to the head coaching position in 2013, it almost felt like Red Bull New York — a club more famous for front office fuck ups than winning — finally got it. It was like they went into the South Ward and appointed one of us.
Petke’s relationship with longtime fans was that strong, though because RBNY is what it is, fans still had to see the move with a bit of skepticism. Hiring a coach with no prior experience was lightyears away from standard practice for Red Bull. We had to wonder if it was an early indicator of future changes in team’s general directive.
Now that Petke’s gone — in an offseason that has already seen Sporting Director Andy Roxburgh leave the club — RBNY supporters are left with nothing but questions. What path is this team on now? What are Red Bull’s future plans, if there are any at all?
In the fall, Marc de Grandpre, who served as the Red Bulls’ first general manager after the MetroStars buyout, was brought back to handle business operations for the team. Ali Curtis, a former player personnel official with the league, is the team’s new technical director. Before today, the theme of the offseason was the franchise’s admission that a change of philosophy from multi-million dollar signings to homegrown talent was underway. Now, going into what was supposed to be a celebrated 20th year, fans are more hurt and confused than ever.
It takes a special blow to truly break a longtime Metro-RBNY fan’s heart. We’ve seen it all, been through it all. The revolving door that was installed at Giants Stadium and transported to the Arena made it difficult to get attached to personalities, or be shocked when something supposedly unbelievable happened. But even for Red Bull, whose fans constantly compromise and suspend disbelief, this is a new low.
Throughout the season, stories appeared indicating that Red Bull believed it would never see a return on its heavy investment and were making efforts to sell. At the time, most were dismissive. As a New York fan, you’re bred to expect the unexpected, ignore it and move on. With this latest round of front office turnover, I’m starting to believe it.
In his first stint with the team, de Grandpre operated the organization more like a “mergers and acquisitions” VP than a sports general manager. It’s possible he’s back to reprise the role. The appointment of Curtis from a league office that, depending on your level of paranoia, has been either a “reluctant partner” to “mortal enemy” of RBNY, strikes a strange chord as well.
With more than two months before the season begins, it looks like Red Bull is cleaning house and starting the 2015 campaign with a blank slate. Maybe it’s an effort to appeal to potential investors, who would prefer to implement their own ideas. It looks like they’re fixing up the windows, painting the walls a neutral shade and putting a “For Sale” sign in the yard.
The public relations disaster of Manchester City and its spin-off, New York City FC, has been the talk of the league, partly because NYCFC was supposed to be the anti-Red Bull. Now, it appears that the new boys are just as broken as the old ones, and the old ones are miraculously finding new ways to walk backward.