By Kristian Dyer
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Mike Petke is everything that a New York coach can and should be.
On Thursday morning at the Red Bulls’ training facility, first-year head coach Petke and team captain Thierry Henry each had to be restrained following a verbal altercation midway through practice. It takes a certain amount of courage and perhaps even chutzpah for any head coach — let alone one in his first year — to take on a personality like Henry.
Temperamental and prickly (shocking because the French are so well known for their joviality), Henry has become the dominant force on this Red Bulls team, and perhaps for good reason. He has played and won the World Cup with the French national team and has suited up for the likes of Arsenal and Barcelona, two of the biggest clubs in the world. He is also considered a true world-class talent. Not surprisingly, he has been a perennial All-Star in Major League Soccer, and is among the best players to ever play in the league.
But he also is a world-class prima donna who has shown a temper on the field and an uneven temperament in the locker room.
In the other corner there is Petke. He’s a legend who played for this team when they were known as the MetroStars, and then returned to New York to close out his career. He’s the antithesis of Henry. He played the entirety of his career in MLS, far from the big leagues Henry called home, Petke was a hard-nosed central defender known for grit and spit. The two couldn’t be further apart, except that they both have a fiery disposition.
A disposition that came to a boiling point on Thursday morning as the Red Bulls, who are currently in the midst of a three-game winless streak, look to reclaim the season.
But what should be taken from this incident — and make no mistake that practice squabbles are common, and this singular moment should not be blown out of proportion — is that Petke is the most true-blue New York head coach in the area right now.
Tried and true, the born and bred son of Long Island is the embodiment of what a New Yorker is. His roots are from this area and he talks with the unmistaken accent of one who called Bohemia, N.Y., his home for his formative years. Then, out of college, he was drafted by the MetroStars and retired as the franchise’s foremost legend and leader in all-time games played.
He fought and battled for the jersey on his back and made a career out of an insatiable desire to represent his hometown club to the best of his ability.
Other coaches have cowered in the face of a Henry tempest and have placated his mood swings and frequent outburst of emotion. Instead, the New Yorker inside of Petke, who now lives near the Jersey Shore, came out and wasn’t afraid to back down.
On Thursday, Petke sent a message to his team that no one individual is bigger than the team, even if that includes one of the greatest soccer players of the past quarter-century. He went face-to-face and emotion-to-emotion with one of the most brilliant soccer players of his generation — a player that he, in fact, should consider himself lucky to even have the right coach.
And in doing so, Petke proved why we love him and why he is the personification of New York sports, more than any other coach in this city. Petke didn’t back down, just like a true New Yorker.
Kristian R. Dyer covers the Jets for Metro New York and also contributes to Yahoo! Sports. He can be followed for news and random tweets at @KristianRDyer.
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