By FRANCO PANIZO
The finger pointing began even before the final whistle. As the minutes ticked off and the reality of the New York Red Bulls crashing out of the CONCACAF Champions League sunk in, fans of the club began to criticize head coach Mike Petke for failing to take the competition seriously.
The understandable anger and frustration that they felt Wednesday night is still very real nearly 12 hours later, but it is being taken out on the wrong person.
The Red Bulls were eliminated from the Champions League with a Group 3 game to spare after being held to a scoreless draw by CD FAS in El Salvador on Wednesday, and many observers pointed to the fact that Petke trotted a mostly reserve-filled lineup yet again.
Truth be told, this New York team should have been able to pick up a victory over a CD FAS side that was already eliminated and had nothing left to play for but pride. They still could have won if not for a missed penalty kick from Saer Sene and other blown opportunities in front of goal late in the second half.
But the Red Bulls didn’t convert, and Petke’s decision to not field the likes of Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, and Bradley Wright-Phillips came into question immediately.
Petke explained their absences postgame as being down to injuries, which does not seem to hold much weight given that they were healthy enough to partake in this past weekend’s 4-1 thumping of the Seattle Sounders. Even so, he chose not to start Jamison Olave, Roy Miller and Eric Alexander in a must-win match alongside regulars like Dax McCarty and Lloyd Sam who were on the field.
It was another sign of the club prioritizing the MLS regular season over other meaningful competitions instead of taking them all seriously, but Petke’s hands were tied by what seems to be the Red Bull ownership group’s indifference towards success outside of league play.
Petke gets it, folks.
He is a long-time member of MLS, has played in the U.S. Open Cup and has watched as other teams have made deep runs in the continental tournament that is the CONCACAF Champions League.
He is also a fierce competitor and understands those competitions’ importance, even stating as much earlier this year.
That said, what can he do when his bosses prioritize how he does in MLS over any other success the club might have elsewhere?
Petke has never come out and said directly that making the MLS Cup Playoffs is more important than, say, the U.S. Open Cup or Champions League, but it is not hard to read between the lines and see that club’s owners don’t put much stock into winning those other major trophies.
“As far as the Open Cup goes, I love the Open Cup because I’m American. I was playing the Open Cup 17 years ago,” Petke said in June. “But I can tell you right now, I am 100 percent judged by my results in MLS from my bosses and Austria and not from the Open Cup.
“I can tell you right now if we win the Open Cup, I don’t even know if I’d get a recognition from Austria because they just don’t understand it, so that’s where I have to sometimes separate myself and realize what’s my job title? What’s my job description?”
The Open Cup was another tournament the Red Bulls took lightly and were eliminated from early, by the cross-town New York Cosmos of the NASL no less. That humbling 3-0 defeat was similar to the draw vs. CD FAS in that the most of Petke’s heavy artillery was left behind while a reserve-filled team struggled to put forth a performance worth being proud of.
Ultimately, it all comes down to Petke realizing that he needs to reach the MLS Cup Playoffs and have a good showing there in order to give himself the best chance of returning as Red Bulls head coach in 2015. He has essentially been forced to put all of his eggs in one basket.
“For me, I’m very excited to be in the Champions League. I think it’s a very important and great platform for us,” Petke said last month before starting Champions League play. “However, if I had to put the (Champions League and MLS regular season) next to each other, I wouldn’t put one above the other. But I can tell you that making the playoffs in MLS is extremely important, not only to me and the players, but to the organization.
“It’s going to be an interesting dynamic to put this together and figure out who’s going to play when.”
With so much invested in reaching the postseason, the Red Bulls need to not only make it there but have a stronger showing than in years past. No excuses.
If they don’t, then Petke will shoulder a lot more of the blame.
As for the failure in CONCACAF Champions League?
Don’t blame Petke. Blame the Red Bull ownership group.