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Eventually, though, Petke won over the Europeans who've been installed atop the Red Bulls in the last eight months: new sporting director Andy Roxburgh, an amiable Glaswegian (he's close to Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho) who managed Scotland at the 1990 World Cup and who served as UEFA's technical director for the past 18 years; new G.M. Jérôme de Bontin, a French former president of AS Monaco and Amherst alum whose job it is to start filling Red Bull Arena, the club's sparkling $200 million stadium; and Red Bull's new Head of Global Soccer, Gerard Houllier, a former French national team manager and the driving force behind the youth development boom that led to France's '98 World Cup title. Of supreme importance, it was Houllier who coached Henry to the European Under-18 title in '96.
"The first time I saw Thierry, I made him captain and we won against the Germans," Houllier, 65, recalls of the teenager. "He had what I call international quality: the power, the speed and the technique to beat players." Houllier would go on to manage Liverpool, Lyon and Aston Villa, and last July he took over Red Bull's five world soccer outposts: academies in Ghana and Brazil, and teams in Austria, Germany and New York. He is expected to have his biggest impact on the MLS team's youth academy.
In the end, two factors led to Petke's surprise ascension from interim coach in January, two months after Hans Backe was fired. For one, he impressed Roxburgh with the way he led practice sessions. But just as important, none of the European candidates for the job (a list that reportedly included Scotland's Gary McAllister and Portugal's Paulo Sousa) would commit by the time preseason training started. Petke was the last man standing. "He's enthusiastic and very passionate," says Houllier, who'd favored going European. "So Andy said, 'Why don't we give him a chance?'"
"Mike is a local hero," Roxburgh says of Petke, a firebrand who played eight seasons (and sported at least as many hairstyles) with the MetroStars and Red Bulls. "There are many examples of coaches who've done well coming from within. He's dedicated to the club and knows everything that's going on, plus he knows MLS. That was a major factor."
In many ways, Petke's appointment makes sense. MLS history is littered with failed big-name coaches from overseas (Parreira and Carlos Queiroz in New York; Ruud Gullit in L.A.) who grew frustrated with the league's restrictive rules and either left or were fired. The most successful managers have been Americans like Arena, Seattle's Sigi Schmid and Houston's Dominic Kinnear—shrewd managers who know the league and how to build teams with what's available.
At the same time, Petke's light résumé, the recent front-office turnover and Houllier's deep ties to Henry have prompted questions about how much influence Henry is wielding behind the scenes. There's always a risk in giving too much power to a star player, as the Galaxy learned when Beckham's best friend and personal manager spearheaded the team's coaching search in 2008. (The Galaxy initially imploded, only to recover when Arena took over.)
To hear those involved, Henry has significant influence but by no means decision-making control. When asked what Henry first told him about the Red Bulls, Houllier recalls his fellow Frenchman saying, "We need professionalism. Coach, you should come and change things around. It's just a shambles. We've managed to get some results, but we can do better." Sure enough, by the end of the 2012 season, after New York was eliminated in the MLS quarterfinals, both Backe (who in his tenure had led New York to finishes of first, fifth and third in the East) and sporting director Erik Solér were out. All told, 16 players from last year's team have been jettisoned. And two important off-season acquisitions, forward Fabián Espíndola and defender Jámison Olave, came from Real Salt Lake, a team that Henry has openly admired for its style and success. (Espíndola and Olave accounted for all three goals on Sunday.)
Last summer, months before Roxburgh took over as sporting director, he flew from a vacation in Florida to meet Henry in New York. "He told me about some of the complexities of the league and the issues, the kinds of things he would like to see happening at the club," Roxburgh says. "He's a very proud professional. He's not a guy who wants to be in a context where he thinks we're playing exhibition games." Yet while Roxburgh acknowledges that he now meets regularly with Henry, Cahill and other senior players for input, the Scotsman stresses that "they rightly recognize they don't make decisions."
Petke, for his part, says he's well aware of the perception that "Thierry picks the team" and maintains that's not the case. And he's O.K. with the visible frustration that Henry has shown toward his teammates when he's been unhappy with their play. "His explosions, his competitiveness—those are the qualities I love about him," Petke says. "They might boil over in practices and games, but I look at guys like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Kobe Bryant, and they all have similar qualities. Do I want a nice guy or someone who's going to lead by example and push other players? For me, it's easy. Get the ball to the best players on the field. And Thierry is the best player on the field."
During a break in training camp last month, Henry was watching a montage of Jordan's greatest moments when he caught something: His Airness never cracked a smile. The trophies were never enough; Jordan always wanted more. And to Henry, that feels relatable—it's why a man who has won so much hardware cares so deeply about delivering New York its first MLS Cup trophy.