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Brad Rock: Firing of Mike Petke demonstrates the power of millennials in soccer

Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke takes to the field before the match against the Vancouver Whitecaps at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, April 08, 2017.
Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke takes to the field before the match against the Vancouver Whitecaps at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, April 08, 2017.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Mike Petke was a reporter’s dream: enlightening, likable and funny. But he missed on all of those points last month when he directed what has been reported as homophobic slurs at an official following a Leagues Cup match against the Tigres.

He missed so badly he’s out of a job.

Sunday night Real Salt Lake fired its coach.

The team and league had already penalized Petke more severely than any other coach in MLS history. He was suspended without pay for two weeks, banned from three MLS games and fined $25,000. The use of a slur that night, and the fact he has been fined previously for emotional outbursts, sealed the fate of a productive coach.

Why would Real fire him after already levying such severe punishment? Was he insubordinate? Hard to work with? That never seemed to be the case whenever he was on a public stage with RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen. They were positively chummy. This year, though, RSL has struggled to stay above the playoff dividing line. The team is currently in sixth place in the Western Conference; seven make the postseason.

The final call on Petke’s job heavily weighed upon one overriding point.

The fans wanted him gone.

Not all the fans. Maybe even not a majority. But the ones that matter most.

Tomorrow’s fans.

And next year’s.

Fans who will be coming in 2030.

Petke’s status has been in doubt since his suspension on July 30. A report by Matt Montgomery on RSL Soapbox said it had reviewed video of Hansen speaking with supporters following a Utah Royals match. The report said Hansen stressed that organizational values were paramount. But the most significant part quoted Hansen saying there was “a deep split” between millennials and older fans.

“Millenials are almost 90 percent out, the older fans are almost 90 percent in. I’ve got two generations in this whole thing, so it’s an interesting conversation,” Hansen reportedly said.

If that is accurate, there lies the ultimate answer.

Millennials are RSL’s most powerful fan base and the majority of them wanted him fired. So that’s what Real did.

Take a look at the crowd at an RSL game. Hansen went with the people who will be buying tickets and forging sponsorships in the future.

Petke’s previous problems with RSL were minor compared to this. He was fined in 2017 for criticizing the officiating in a postgame press conference and handing out photocopies of what he considered obvious missed calls. In 2018 he was fined $10,000 for kicking a chair and publicly criticizing officials, then challenging the league to “drain my bank account.”

This, though, was reportedly a string of slurs and obscenities — enough to cause MLS commissioner Don Garber to call it “repugnant.”

“I am who I am,” Petke said after his 2017 rant. “If I don’t act the way I do, I can’t sleep for the next four weeks.”

That must have been the sticking point. Hansen and club officials were afraid Petke would keep being the guy who went crazy after a non-MLS game this July.

Petke was, in large part, popular with Real fans. He tweeted out his takes on officiating, food, strategy and engaged with fans. He even apologized for his impulsive actions in the past.

Because Petke used inappropriate language doesn’t make him a raving bigot. He’s a coach who blindly unleashed at what he thought was an incompetent official, in the worst possible way. That’s a questionable example to young soccer players and poor treatment of both the official and the LGBT community. But Petke doesn’t deserve to be forever banished to soccer oblivion. He should coach again somewhere. The fiercest punishment in league history sent a powerful message all by itself.

Whether that should have kept him with RSL depended on the age of the person you asked.

When it comes to soccer in America in 2019, it’s not hard to see who’s calling the shots.