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Right after the improbable news of Mike Petke's firing as New York Red Bulls head coach was made official, a buddy and long-time MetroStars/Red Bulls fan shot me a note: "WTF just happened in Harrison?"
I had no idea how to explain it to him and said so.
“Bizarre,” he wrote back. “And yet not, given that franchise’s history.”
Petke, in case you need reminding, is the only club icon New York has – well, had. He represented the club for seven seasons over two stints and, as a gritty defender, embodied the combative spirit the fans liked to see – even as they were mostly treated to players that were long on flair and short on fight. After two years as an assistant coach, following his retirement, Petke spent the last two as the team’s 13th head coach in 19 seasons.
In his first year in charge, he won the Supporters Shield for posting the best regular season record in MLS. It was the club’s first piece of real silverware. Then, last season, the club came within a goal of the MLS Cup final, further cementing his popularity with the club’s bedraggled hardcore fan base, which has stomached so much futility and mismanagement.
Now he is gone, replaced by Jesse Marsch. The latter is an eminently capable and qualified coach. It’s just that he’s not Mike Petke.
New sporting director Ali Curtis, who is just two weeks into the job, tried to explain his decision.
“This wasn’t about getting rid of Mike Petke, it was about bringing in Jesse Marsch,” he said on a conference call. “Jesse embodies where we are moving forward. I’ve got a vision; I’ve got a philosophy and a plan. While we appreciate Mike’s service to the club, this was a decision I felt needed to be made.”
He understood that what he did won’t be taken lightly.
“Mike has been with the club for seven years and he’s been here as a coach so he’s developed a relationship with our fan base,” Curtis said. “We believe that the community and that the fans and our players will embrace this decision and that it’s the right decision for the club.”
That might be a considerable miscalculation. In the wake of Petke’s firing, Red Bull fans took to the message boards to figure out how to get refunds on their season tickets. Curtis said several times that the “club embraces tradition.” But Petke is that tradition.
If nothing else, the fans will feel that Petke at least deserved to start another season and adapt to the new “vision.” But from the looks of it, Curtis set out to replace Petke his first day on the job and blindsided his coach.
For a team that will, for the first time, have a cross-town MLS rival in New York City FC (not to mention the New York Cosmos in the NASL) and doesn’t look like it will replace its marquee player Thierry Henry (or perhaps even keep Tim Cahill), the Red Bulls sure are pushing their luck with a fan base that deserves better and now has few alternatives.