Real Salt Lake's turnaround under Petke is no surprise, but will it last?
You can say one thing about Real Salt Lake, heading into Decision Day: It's Mike Petke's team.
After a slow start, RSL has surged into contention, regaining a collective ethos and fighting spirit that had gone missing under Jeff Cassar and which affirms Petke's profile as an effective, if not always subtle, motivator.
Yes, there has been less emphasis on the technical nuances that defined player recruitment in the Garth Lagerwey/Jason Kreis heyday of the team, but, well, look at the results. Until last weekend, that is.
The Colorado Rapids' two shots in Sunday's Rocky Mountain Cup game were enough to yield the single goal that beat their rivals and threatened to derail their insurgent playoff push. Perhaps most damningly, with RSL chasing the game late on, Petke inexplicably failed to throw on Yura Movsisyan to try to add an extra forward to finish one of the team's hopeful crosses into the box.
That result could haunt Petke in more ways than one. After the new coach took over, Movsisyan's attitude and his new manager's public shaming of it became the first symbolic battleground for Petke proving his authority over his players. It was a fight Petke picked -- relished even -- as he set out to remind the forward and the team as a whole that no player was bigger than the collective.
"The team is the star," runs the RSL motto. "Or else," Petke might have added, as he dropped Movsisyan to the bench.
And as a slap to the face for an underperforming side, there was apparent virtue to Petke's methods. A slow start gradually coalesced into the team's surge in recent weeks. Key new parts were added in attack; Justen Glad has boosted his profile in defense; and with Dallas slumping, San Jose flaky and even the teams above them flickering intermittently, RSL became an unlikely Western Conference contender.
Its path is more fraught now; even a win at home to Sporting Kansas City will not guarantee a playoff spot without other results going the team's way. Expect Real to make a battle of it, reliving some of the scrappier encounters between the two that marked a rivalry around the turn of the decade. But also expect that falling short puts the scrutiny rather more on the shortcomings of Petke the tactician, rather than Petke the leader of men.
New York Red Bulls fans prepared to look beyond popular sentiment will be familiar with that reading. Just as at Salt Lake, Petke picked high-stakes confrontations in New York to affirm his authority, memorably benching Tim Cahill at one point and even taking on Thierry Henry when he felt he needed to. In the short term, it was effective in giving a notoriously soft team some much-needed edge. Petke won a Supporters' Shield as a rookie coach and got to the conference final the following year.
But when it came to being entrusted with the youth-centric rebuild of the team post-Henry and Cahill, the Red Bulls looked elsewhere. Senior players' disquiet with Petke's methods had eroded his mandate over time. A few months after Petke had gone, one player who had played for him and then Jesse Marsch would characterize the two coaches' approach to training as "night and day".
Petke has spoken of having a clear idea of how he wants his teams to play and of not faulting players who stick to the individual roles he describes for them, but implicit in that is a certain rigidity. Petke's way or the highway. Whichever way this season ultimately breaks, it's fair to ask where Petke's way ultimately leads.
Nobody's doubting Petke's ability to transform the tone of a locker room or energize a demoralized fan base; he's a big personality who insists on players meeting his intensity. And populist touches like the news conference in which he produced a printout showing Joao Plata in "a freakin' headlock" play well to the gallery. But the challenge now will be for Petke to show he can be more than a firefighter, more than the kind of coach chairmen turn to in other countries to get a demoralized team to fight their way out of a relegation battle.
In other words, can Petke show the strategic vision to go with his appetite for the fight? Where RSL is after year one should perhaps be no surprise. If he's guiding the team into year four, it might be.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.