Petke shows in snow-globe win that he's ready to shake things up at RSL
There's something very apt about the way Real Salt Lake looked as if they were playing in a shaken-up snow globe during their 3-0 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday.
After all, their new coach Mike Petke has a reputation for shaking things up, whether it's as a no-nonsense player whose spats with opposing attackers are part of Major League Soccer punk folklore, or as the manager who finally gave the perennially flaky New York Red Bulls a winning edge and indeed their first trophy.
On Saturday, it looked like Petke had done it again -- winning his first game in charge of RSL by an emphatic 3-0 margin. By way of emphasizing the significance of that result, it was not only the team's first win in 2017, but its first victory since last August. A fired-up side, noticeably animated during the week's training sessions by the presence of the enthusiastic Petke, looked to have swept away not only Vancouver but its own malaise at the end of Jeff Cassar's reign.
At least that's what you would think looking at the scoreline. But just like the unfolding career of Petke himself, the truth is somewhat more subtle than the surface suggests.
For one thing, the three goals came in the second half, when the conditions were already farcical. If you want some perspective on that, you might consider that the highlight from the game that most neutrals are talking about was the cheeky snowball Luis Silva threw at Vancouver's Tim Parker, after the RSL player found himself bundled over in the box. It was that kind of evening.
If you want a more sober assessment of Petke's start, the goalless first half of the game gave a few clues. Joao Plata found himself wider than usual in the 4-2-3-1 formation, but had a couple of looks at goal cutting in. Brooks Lennon was a real menace down the right, if still occasionally lacking in the final ball. In New York, Petke ultimately proved himself to be more of a pragmatist than a dreamer -- early visions of a swashbuckling 4-3-3 style swiftly solidified into that more solid 4-2-3-1. And in Salt Lake, too, Petke looks to have quickly accepted local conventional wisdom that Kyle Beckerman can no longer operate as the sole base of midfield, but that his virtues remain intact when offset with the diligence of Luke Mulholland.
Still, for all the liveliness of RSL's approach play in the first period amid steadily increasing snowfall, there were no goals. And that's an inherited problem Petke will have to solve.
As it was, Saturday night devolved into the sight of an orange ball skimming fitfully through the snow, and while RSL deserve credit for displaying the greater appetite and aptitude for staying on their collective feet, the visual noise of the storm echoed the noise drowning out any meaningful signals about life under Petke.
But sometimes, more than an immediate technical uptick, you just need an occasion to change the mood of a team, and Petke is nothing if not a man with a sense of occasion. Watching the match unfold amid hastily dug out line markings brought to mind another game held in another part of the Rocky Mountains four years ago, when the U.S. beat Costa Rica in a blizzard in Colorado. That game came a few days after a now-infamous news story had cited anonymous sources within the U.S. camp complaining about the methods of one Jurgen Klinsmann. Nobody remembers anything of the ensuing game as a technical battle, but they remember that the U.S. won 1-0 in a blizzard and that a potential crisis was avoided -- or at least postponed until another infamous Costa Rica game in late 2016 ...
The point was that game became a standalone event, a distinct marker in the journey of the coach, rather than just the latest in a sequence of results. Petke's first match in RSL was always going to be an event anyway, but it perhaps did him no harm that his arrival came in such outlandish fashion.
Born in the snow ...
After all, it could be argued that Petke's managerial career was born in the snow. The image of the then-assistant coach at the New York Red Bulls joining fans in a heroically doomed attempt to shovel the field clear of snow for a vital playoff game against rivals D.C. United in 2012, burnished Petke's legendary status with those supporters. It also stood in stark contrast to then-head coach Hans Backe peering out at the storm from the stadium tunnel and telling TV reporters that this was not soccer.
The subsequent loss proved to be Backe's last game and Petke was the surprise choice to replace him, though in the event he could hardly have gifted the owners a more metaphorical image of the transformation he'd offer than by literally laboring among the fans as his boss futilely appealed for better conditions, away from the fray. And if that image of passion and heart over intellect and nuance would ultimately come back to bite Petke, when the Red Bulls management looked to implement a more systemic technical approach, it served him well when giving him an aura as a first-time coach.
And it may serve him well again in trying to galvanize an RSL team that must rediscover faith in the collective. In that sense, the feel of Petke's first match and first win with RSL may turn out to be as important as it looked, at least for now. He's there to shake things up.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.