Philadelphia, PA – What Red Bull New York boss Mike Petke has accomplished in just his first year as a head coach has been nothing short of miraculous.
The glaring inexperience in Petke's coaching resume made predicting New York's final position in the MLS table an incredibly difficult task at the start of the campaign, but anyone who had the Red Bulls leading the race for the Supporters' Shield heading into the final round of fixtures would do well to find a seat on the next flight to Las Vegas.
If the longtime New York defender is not the front-runner for MLS Coach of the Year, he certainly is on the short list.
Sure, the manner in which Caleb Porter and Marco Schallibaum have transformed the Portland Timbers and Montreal Impact, respectively, into playoff teams is impressive, but a first-year coach potentially ending a club's 18-year silverware drought is one of the more exceptional occurrences in MLS history.
One could look at New York's stacked roster that boasts world-class talents like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill and opine that Petke has had little work to do, but do not forget that the squad experienced something of a facelift during the offseason. Gone is Kenny Cooper, who led the Red Bulls in scoring last term with 18 goals. Gone is Rafa Marquez, whose tumultuous tenure with the club was brought to a close when his contract was terminated in December, even despite his vast playing experience. Gone are Joel Lindpere and Jan Gunnar Solli, who both exhibited tireless work rates that made them fan favorites at Red Bull Arena.
The club compensated for these departures by bringing in the likes of Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola, Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele, players who are well-versed in the physicality of MLS and the harsh travel regimen that comes with playing in America.
But Petke still was responsible for bringing all of these new pieces together and getting them to jell in minimal time, a difficult task for a coach of any experience level. That Petke is a novice only adds to the tremendous amount of credit he deserves.
It was not all smooth sailing, though. There was some pressure on Petke right off the bat as the Red Bulls began the season with just one win from their first six games. They also had a very poor spell from June 1 to July 4 when they lost three games out of four by a combined score of 7-1. Then there were the rumors of a bust-up between Petke and Henry during a training session at the end of August in which the two had to be physically separated.
But these instances have proven to be just speed bumps in an otherwise impressive season.
Petke, who at 37 is only one year older than Henry, has developed an identity at the club, something that has been missing for quite some time. The Red Bulls are playing cohesive soccer, moving well off the ball and playing unselfishly.
There have been a handful of dramatic results - New York's 4-3 defeat of Real Salt Lake on July 27 and the club's 2-2 draw with the New England Revolution on Oct. 5 spring to mind - that exhibit the team's ability to play until the final whistle. Petke deserves a great deal of praise for instilling that type of belief in his squad.
But perhaps the greatest indicator of Petke's success this term is that he is on the verge of accomplishing what his predecessor could not.
Hans Backe assumed control of the New York managerial duties ahead of the 2010 season on the back of a lengthy tenure across Europe, which included a spell as an assistant coach at Manchester City as well as successful management stints at FC Copenhagen, Panathinakos and Notts County.
The concept of a "play-off" system to determine the league champion was as foreign to Backe as it should have been, given the Swede's European background. And it is for this reason that Backe stated prior to the 2011 season that achieving the Supporters' Shield would trump an MLS Cup title.
When his approach was questioned by many, Backe stuck to his guns and reiterated his desire to be the best regular-season team.
"(Yes), I'll stick to that," said Backe at the club's media day in 2011. "I think when you play 34 games, and if you are number one after 34 games, you are definitely the best team in (the United States). But, of course, I know every sport in the U.S. (is) built on playoffs. So it's not that if we are winning the Shield (and) we are saying, 'No, no, no, we don't like to win the playoffs.' Of course we want to win the Cup, too. But the main target is to be the number one team winning the Shield."
Backe never guided New York to the Supporters' Shield during his three-year tenure as the club finished eight points away from its goal in 2010, 21 points away in 2011 and nine points away in 2012.
Petke, a newcomer to the coaching scene, is only three points away from achieving what Backe, a well-versed and experienced European coach, could not.
A win over the Chicago Fire in New York's regular season finale on Sunday would be enough to clinch the Supporters' Shield and deliver the club's fans their first taste of silverware in MLS. It would etch Petke's name further into Red Bull New York lore and likely secure MLS Coach of the Year honors to cap a sensational season in Harrison, N.J.
Who could have predicted that at the start of the season?