A DC United Fan’s Lament for Mike Petke

I should be crying tears of joy. As a DC United fan, few things are supposed to delight more than beating New York 5-0, or over and over in the playoffs, or watching them never win anything of substance.

Already gone was the most important player in Metros history. And now, so is the most important coach. A guy who, in his two seasons, won two things the franchise had been itching to win since the 1996 playoffs: a major trophy and a playoff series against DC.

It’s fair to expect a step back in on-field performance, and for that, I’m excited. I guess. Were I a spiteful person who cared more about DC United’s short-term success than MLS’s and American soccer’s growth, I’d be cheering this Petke firing. Alas.

A strong DCU v Metros rivalry is probably important to the league. It would be more accurate to say that it’s important to me that it’s important to the league.

When a sports franchise does something that rival fans celebrate, they’re probably not doing the right thing. For example, I got really excited when in the 2012 playoffs Roy Miller started running toward that free kick. That playoff series was the end of the awesome Hans Backe era, and the beginning of the terrifying Mike Petke era.

Following a Supporters’ Shield campaign with one that comes within a goal from MLS Cup should be enough to keep a job for at least, like, one more season. Even stepping away from the stats and accomplishments, which I feel I can do because Red Bull certainly did, there was a vibe around New York this year.

The Red Bulls are one of those “here we go again” franchises. Losing several times in the playoffs to DC, to a mediocre San Jose as the 1-seed, to a mediocre Houston as the 1-seed, etc, will do that to you.

With about 10 games left in the regular season, we talked to Dan Dickinson on slashMLS. His bold prediction was that New York would miss the playoffs and I called him out on it at the time because I didn’t think it was particularly bold. Even though Tim Cahill and Roy Miller were the only Red Bulls called away to World Cup duty, the whole team looked fatigued immediately after the World Cup break. When they lost 2-0 in DC and didn’t look particularly good doing it, I turned to Metro Phil to relay Dan’s prediction and he agreed.

DC and New York met a week and a half later in what looked like was going to be another “Here we go again” game. New York dominated possession and scoring opportunities but were stymied by Bill Hamid. The 90th minute approached and another scoreless draw seemed imminent. This happens all the time, New York totally outplays DC at home, only to draw or lose because of a historic goalkeeping performance and/or one or two defensive lapses. Just in the last three years, it happened in the playoffs in 2012 and in the beginning of the season in 2013.

But then Lloyd Sam scored in the 90th minute and New York would continue on a 6-2-1 finish that saw them comfortably in the playoffs.

Running into SKC in the play-in round, the table was set for another “Here we go again” game. Even though New York had just beaten SKC in a game four days earlier that would decide the playoff game’s host, Dom Dwyer scored the opener early in the second half. You could feel the on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the 75th minute from the supporters who have seen all of three playoff series wins in 18 years.

But then BWP scored. And then he scored again. New York moved on. Beyond simply moving on to the next round though, there felt like an aura around the Red Bulls that legitimately scared me. There was a different energy emanating from Red Bull Arena and I didn’t like it one bit. The crowd went from overly nervous to confident and that continued into Leg One against DC.

Executives and coaches, especially new ones, often talk about “building an identity and playing exciting championship football.” Ali Curtis and Jesse Marsch stayed true to this execu-talk last week, even if Marsch poked a little fun at the brand. Marsch definitely deserved another shot at a coaching job by the way. It really sucks though that he has to inherit this borderline impossible situation. Oh well.

Anyway, Marsch talked of building a team that plays like an energy drink, and Curtis said that it was this vision, not anything having to do with Petke, that prompted Petke’s dismissal and Marsch’s hiring. Let’s forget the reports that Curtis also reached out to Gregg Berhalter, Caleb Porter, and Bruce Arena (because no coaching job is more appealing than one where the previous up-and-coming young coach was fired after the two most successful seasons in club history) before settling on Marsch and assume this is true.

Too often a front office will sacrifice long-term prospects for short-term marketing boosts. People will get excited for a few days over a new hiring or signing but when they don’t pan out, all that excitement at the beginning was wasted. Take Toronto’s Defoe signing last winter. Everyone knows about their “Bloody Big Deal” marketing campaign that Defoe sparked. It proved immediately fruitful when Defoe’s brace won TFC a game in Seattle.

But then he got hurt and unhappy and now he’s probably on his way back to England after another missed-playoffs season. All that excitement at season’s beginning was cool and probably necessary, considering some TFC supporters were considering pulling away from the club after years and years of futility. But in the end, Toronto fans ended up just as bitter and dejected as they were before.

But at least in Toronto’s case, the front office established a precedent and identity of being willing to spend occasionally excessive amounts of money to better the team. With Jozy probably on the way, that remains the case.

New York doesn’t have that. They used to. Petke imparted the club’s first ever positive identity. Maybe that vision didn’t align with Red Bull management’s, but it did align with supporters, and I feel like that’s important. It’s a lot easier to do what Curtis and Marsch are doing right now, which is saying what and how they want Red Bulls to play, than it was to do what Petke did, which was build a sustainable and successful identity. One that we DC United fans legitimately loathed to play against.

Finally, I’m not happy about this firing because even if I hate New York a little more than I do Toronto, DC has to compete against both of them the same for the Eastern Conference. Petke’s availability plus Jozy’s signing would vault Toronto to near the top of the East with New England. Toronto shouldn’t be satisfied with Greg Vanney as their answer. Vanney might be a good coach, but Petke definitely is. I don’t think the interim coach who took over the Ryan Nelsen debacle should expect to retain the position if a Petke is out there.

 

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