New York Red Bulls’ Mike Petke evolves with coaching job

(Image, Empire of Soccer)

(Image, Empire of Soccer)

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu

New York Red Bulls rookie head coach Mike Petke has quickly learned one of the battle tenets from The Art of War; planning and flexibility beat immediate action any day of the week.

With limited time to mold his team this winter, Petke had to make a choice; slowly analyze the capabilities of his team and tailor a system to their strengths – surely dragging preseason into the beginning of the campaign – or force a specific strategy on a capable veteran side in hopes they latch on.

His decision was as rushed as the city he represents. He declared the team would play out of a 4-3-3, preached freedom in the final third, stated the team would play their game no matter the opponent and relied heavily upon his veteran’s to drag everyone else to the finish line.

Things didn’t necessarily work out that way. Nine games into his tenure, the Red Bulls stand at 3-4-2 thanks to a brutal road schedule and, of course, the actions of their rookie head coach.

“I’ve learned a lot. To point at one thing would be difficult,” Petke told reporters on Tuesday. “The Chicago game (a 3-1 road loss at Toyota Park) – to be more precise, my direction and game plan – I’ve learned a lot about player management.

What we have seen since the Chicago game is a more pliant Petke. In fact, nearly every one of his early declarations have failed to stand the test of a strenuous MLS season. A straight 4-3-3 has been abandoned for a traditional 4-4-2. The freedom on attack has developed some structure along with it. And now, perhaps most importantly, the team does tailor their week to week preparations to their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.

“I’ve learned to prepare the team differently depending on who we are playing as opposed to saying this is our style, this is how we play no matter who we play,” he admitted. “Each team calls for something differently. Getting these guys prepared, throw as much knowledge as I can give them, being very precise in how we are going to play and attack the team. Those are the main (lessons).”

“When I am talking about a game plan, in changing the way we play, you’ve seen us in every game now except for the first two in a 4-4-2,” he explained. “Talking about changing the way we play, how we attack and who we attack. Instead of saying no, this is how we play, and it doesn’t matter who they are and what players they have.”

While that didn’t work for the Red Bulls, Petke does concede that it can for other teams like Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake who have established a playing style through a stable roster over the course of the past five years.

“I am not saying that (adjusting your game plan) translates immediately to success but I like it because it gets the players attentive and on board exactly that we have a game plan, that we’ve done our homework and we are looking at this specific team and specific areas to exploit.”

Reality has also taken Petke from the black and white world of a roster page to the shades of gray presented on the pitch. His early plan relied heavily on the play of his veterans. While their knowledge may be there to carry out the plan, the body, at times, does not have the same ideas.

“If I was handed the job and set on playing that system and I had two, three months before the season started to prepare and make moves, this and that, I think it would be a situation that I would look for at least one or two players in the system that were better suited for that system. The players that we have, very talented team, all of them, did not fit in perfectly with that system,” he admitted.

“It was very tough for me but I realized very quickly that defensively, the personnel that we have in a 4-3-3 would have been a lot to ask for. A 4-4-2 gives us more of a structure and a block system and it’s hard to penetrate. I’m hoping people are seeing a lot of times that it does turn into somewhat of a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-3-2 type thing, more of an attacking style. But from the basis of a structure standpoint, it starts out as more of a 4-4-2.

“If the game calls for (a 4-3-3), I would love to go back into some sort of modified version of that, absolutely,” he acknowledges. “I just think that it was unfair, a lot of me, expectation wise, for certain players to fit into that system, to be honest with you.”


Peguy Luyindula is on the mend. According to the Red Bulls coach, he is set for availability against Toronto and ready to put in three quarters practice starting Wednesday afternoon.

Ryan Meara is coming along as well from a pair of hip surgeries this offseason.

Kevin Hartman, 38, continues to work his way towards fitness.

– As I reported on SBI, Petke spoke out against the leagues additional ban on Juninho for his infraction against Jimmy Nielsen. Click here for the full story.

– Petke also commented on trialist Marko Maric. EoS has you covered there (click the link).

  • Chuck

    Unrelated I know but… The back and forth between Herculez Gomez and Don Garber via twitter was pretty good reading.