[MLS] Red Bull defender Mike Petke, a native of Bohemia, N.Y., is manning the middle for a 4-1-0 team that is atop the Eastern Conference. The 34-year-old veteran of 13 MLS seasons took some time to talk about his defensive partner Tim Ream, Coach Hans Backe, and other aspects of New York’s surprisingly strong start.
SOCCER AMERICA: So is rookie defender Tim Ream really that good, or does he look that good because he’s playing next to you?
MIKE PETKE: What can I say about Tim that I haven’t already said? I’ve said this a thousand times over the last three months and you guys aren’t getting it. We have to pull back and be careful with Tim. He’s being lorded as the next greatest thing and he’s played five games. But I’ll open up a little more and say I think the world of this kid. He has more talent and plays more beyond his years than probably any young player I’ve ever seen.
If he keeps his head straight and doesn’t let the press get into his head, and he doesn’t read his press clippings and keeps listening as he has to guys like me and Juan Pablo [Angel] who are feeding him advice, I can see the sky’s the limit.
SA: Give me your impressions when you got that first look at him during preseason.
PETKE: From the first day, we were saying, “Whoa, whoa, this guy is our third pick? Did everybody miss this or did we just get lucky?” From that moment on, he’s been a pleasure to play next to every day. I’d like to think that I’ve helped him out but maybe that’s just my egotistical mind.
The thing that strikes me the most is his willingness to learn and his respect, you could say, of his place as a rookie. He just goes out there and works hard. He does things that makes it easy to play next to him, especially for my old bones.
SA: Those old bones have played for a variety of teams and coaches in the past 13 seasons. What have Coach Hans Backe and the organization done to transform the team’s persona as well as its personnel?
PETKE: The attitude right away was, “We’re going to make this a winning club. It might not take a day or a week or a year, it might take three to five years, but we are dedicated to making this a winning club.” From that statement alone and their actions to follow, what they’ve done and provided us with, it’s started to slowly creep into everybody’s mentality to jump on board.
It’s a completely different feeling than I’ve ever had before playing as a pro and it’s completely different in many aspects. You start out from the new guys coming in right at the top: [managing director] Erik Soler bringing in Hans, and Goran [Aral] as assistant coach, and re-signing Richie [Williams].
This is New York. It’s the biggest city in the world and we need a winner in New York. We started the preseason with that attitude and with Hans’ overall approach to the game, things are starting to turn around.
SA: Is there a particular facet of his approach that has been the most responsible for the team’s excellent start?
PETKE: The biggest thing that Hans did coming in here was work on team defense. That was the first thing. In years past on other teams I played for, and specifically last year, we’d run a defensive drill with four or five guys who didn’t have the ball, and then we’d run an offensive drills with four or five guys. We never did things together as a team, even in the games we won.
Here, when we have the ball, we’re 11 guys, and when we don’t have the ball, we’re 11 guys. There are roles for every player in every position and we know those roles. While I don’t think it’s been perfect so far -- there are a lot of things we have to work on -- we’re getting those results. Last year we would have lost those games easily.
SA: So far this season, you’ve lost only once and won the other four games. When Hans spoke at the SuperDraft, he seemed very down-to-earth and made no predictions or promises whatsoever. Is this how he deals with the players?
PETKE: What you said about Hans is spot-on, his matter-of-fact approach. Aside from maybe one, I’ve never had a coach who treated me or any of the players like grown-ups. It was always about over-coaching you, and a thousand rules, and rule by an iron fist. I never understood that.
Hans’ approach blends the extremely approachable person that he is with getting his point across about, “this is how it’s going to be.” That’s gained a ton of respect from the players, the way he treats everybody with an even keel, and he’s very honest and up front with everybody, which is refreshing.
SA: And for someone who played for the MetroStars (1998-2002) when the laborious process to build a stadium first started, what is it like to call Red Bull Arena home?
PETKE: No matter how you twist and turn it, New York is the mecca of the world. Soccer is definitely gaining in this country and it continues to grow. How can you have the greatest city in the world with a soccer team with no stadium? It doesn’t make sense.
This is the standard for stadiums in this league, and quite possibly around the world for a 24,000-seat stadium. The reverberation of the noise off the roof, it’s incredible. For Red Bull Arena, they wanted something that hadn’t been built yet, something the country had never seen before, and I think they’ve accomplished that.