Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Firing Petke: Red Bull New York's Poison-Pill Gamble

What the man did for coaching fashion was enough...
Forget the English Invasion (Now, With Walkers!). The unceremonious and outrageous firing of New York Red Bulls’ head coach Mike Petke stands tall and all on its lonesome as the biggest story of the 2014-15 Major League Soccer (MLS) off-season.

Yeah, yeah, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard are living (and playing) legends for two of England’s biggest clubs (Chelsea and Liverpool, respectively), but they’ll spend the second half of 2015 getting to know teammates who simply aren’t as good as what they’re used to. On top of that, they’ll have to acclimate to the air travel, getting kicked by over-eager American youths (and bitter veterans), and having burning red cleat marks ignored by American referees: these are all part of the MLS experience. Presumably, that leaves only the 2016 season for both players to prove that soccer’s equivalent of The Expendables can survive MLS. Lampard’s going to be 30-freakin’-8 come June of 2016...just sayin’.

The Petke...shit, what to call this thing? Betrayal? Shivving? Assassination? Anyway, the thing that happened to Petke is big. The story has legs, for one, what with the angry buzzing from reasonably - no, rightly-aggrieved - Red Bulls fans. Tributes in both graphic and liquid forms, and the hasty, sloppy, yet entirely necessary damage control from the Red Bull brass give the whole affair the regular accessories of scandal.

More than that, an air of symbolism attaches to the whole affair. This thing has a very MLS 3.0 vibe. Ambition's the word. And Petke doesn't match that vibe. His persona and legacy tap deeply into MLS's other incarnations (as in, MLS 1.0 and 2.0): he's a meat-and-potatoes, get-the-job-done type. As such, he fits better in a scrappy league that can't fly high enough to show up on radar. Who knows? Maybe the view from the boardroom looks down and sees a relic of the small-time past?

No one seems to blame the Red Bull’s new coach, Jesse Marsch, for any of this and that’s appropriate. The man only took the job on offer, after all (and after several others passed, reportedly) and Marsch has the smarts to say the right things. All frustration and anger flows toward the Red Bulls front office – samples of the flood air on this now-famous podcast (which features a touching cameo by Mr. Petke) – and most of rage pours toward Ali Curtis, RBNY’s new Sporting Director. Curtis won the scorn when he "owned" the decision to let go of Petke. Fair's fair.

Red Bulls fans can't wrap their heads around some perceived need to replace Petke because it stinks of a solution in search of a problem. Even if it's arguably not true that he presided over the Red Bulls’ best era – for instance, what about the Red Bulls team that actually reached MLS Cup? – Petke did one thing no other Red Bull coach every had: he brought hardware to the club's barren trophy case. Further, not a few people credit his capacity for learning on the job. And well: this goes beyond some callers into the Seeing Red podcast linked to above and directly to a frequent talking point from 2014 - e.g., where people credited Petke for the effective pairing of Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander in midfield. The "relic of the small-time past" description doesn't match the evidence...even if I just made up the phrase. Or applied to Petke.

What happened in New York seems likely to be a noticeable component of MLS 3.0, maybe even a new normal. Not every club will be able to keep up as MLS grows. That will encourage, for lack of a better word,"spazzing." Clubs will make dramatic, unpopular, even manifestly stupid moves, and sometimes with an eye to nothing better than the appearance of action. After all,l doing something dumb is still doing something. This is why Congress forms committees. To be less cynical about it, they might even believe in those moves. They might also need to coat them in thick, cherry-flavored delusion in wrestle them down the gullet, but I'm pretty sure they'll be happy to do that if there's even the slimmest hope of taking credit later.

I file the Gerrard and Lampard signings under appearance of action, but that's just me. I don’t see either doing much for the respective clubs with only a rickety year (2016) in which to do it. Because, holy old. But both moves generated lots of copy and, with Lampard, especially, enthusiasm. That’s half the goal, at least, but whole-goal signings seem the wiser course.

The thing with Marsch is something else. It could work out just fine, of course. He seems smart enough and he's got real-world coaching experience. Sadly, the smartness of his hiring doesn't really matter, not against the ham-handed P.R. stupidity of firing a club icon like Petke without clear cause. Even assuming Marsch succeeds the question of whether Petke could have done just as well, if not better, won't go away for years. With the way he left the club, it might not ever go away. Worse, every one year that Marsch, or any future successor, fails to maintain some unspoken standard will translate to two more years of questions about what might have been, not to mention bad blood.

It’s a no-win, in the end, not unless Marsch brings home an MLS Cup in, oh, two year’s time...

No comments:

Post a Comment