The first time Mike Petke walked out of the Giants Stadium tunnel as a MetroStars rookie in 1998, the Long Island-born defender was a platinum-blonde unknown from Southern Connecticut State University. Fast-forward 12 years and Petke is still wearing a New York kit, though plenty has changed.
This Saturday, as Petke once again jogs onto the field, he will do so as a member of the Red Bulls. He's now no longer an unknown, but one of the most respected defenders in the league. Gone are the dyed-blonde locks, along with the red-and-black of the MetroStars jersey on his frame for a player who was twice capped by the U.S. national team and even pursued by Bundesliga clubs following the 2000 season.
Yet Petke has come full circle: Saturday’s opening of Red Bull Arena against Brazilian side Santos is proof of how far this franchise’s favorite legend has traveled.
“It really is amazing, that I have the chance to be here again and be a part of this,” said Petke on Tuesday at Red Bulls Media Day, reflecting on a career that saw him make stops in D.C. and Colorado before being dealt back to New York in November of 2008. “This is the place I always wanted to be, where I wanted to finish my career.”
On Tuesday, Petke and the rest of his teammates had the chance to practice for the first time at their sparkling new soccer-specific home. Assistant coach Richie Williams believes the new stadium provides the next generation of young players in the area a chance to dream and say, “I want to someday play there.”
A local product himself, Petke is a part of a generation that came of age as MLS began to take on an identity in the early 2000s, but he wasn’t sure if the Harrison dream would ever be a reality for him.
“I knew this place would one day happen, but I wasn’t sure I’d be around in MLS for it,” Petke said, looking out at the field. “I wasn’t sure I’d be here in New York for it or even playing. To be a part of it, it really is remarkable."
Petke, always a fan favorite who earned cult status (and a hefty MLS fine) for his “Revenge Is Coming” T-shirt following the Mamadou Diallo-Mike Ammann incident in 2000, is much more than just a gesture towards the franchise’s long-suffering fans. He's a throwback to sentimentality. Assistant coach Goran Aral calls him an outstanding locker-room presence and many of his teammates hail him as the type of player who is constantly pushing others to be better.
But Petke still has plenty to offer in his 34 year-old legs on the field, too.
“Mike is a good player and I am surprised by his fitness and play at his age,” said new Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe. “He is a leader, a veteran who has been in the league a long time. His positioning is very good and he is technically strong as well.”
Petke is no longer a rookie, but his heart still bleeds for this club and its fans. So on Saturday, will the supporters see him race out of the tunnel with bleached hair in a tribute to his glory days?
“I don’t think we’ll be seeing that look anytime soon,” he added, with a laugh.