By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Oct 24, 2013) US Soccer Players – Mike Petke is the embodiment of New York. From his attitude to his accent, and everything in between, Petke lives, breathes, and bleeds New York. As a player for the MetroStars and Red Bulls, Petke’s trademark was hard-nosed defending. This season, as a rookie coach, Petke has taken those attributes in an attempt to instill them in his players.
"I'm extremely proud (of this team)," he said, adding, "My players have proven to me that they can play under pressure and in tough situations."
Petke may have been praising his players, but he was also talking about Sunday afternoon's game at Red Bull Arena against the Chicago Fire. A win and the Red Bulls win the Supporters Shield it what may be the only highlight in the franchise’s otherwise lackluster 18-year history.
"Sunday is the final 90 minutes of the season," he said. "There is a lot on the line."
Just don't ask Petke about winning the Supporters Shield.
"You can ask me on Sunday after the game," he joked.
Of course, Petke is minimizing the situation his team is in. Although a win is important, he said the Red Bulls need to approach the game in the same manner as any other. Calling it a "difficult game," Petke said he feels no pressure, talking like a coach who has gained confidence over the past months.
"We've already made the playoffs. The pressure is on (Chicago)," he said.
Petke has been a fan favorite in New York for years. Born in Bohemia on Long Island, Petke was a Division II college star with Southern Connecticut State University. When he moved to the pro game, fans dedicated banners to him and chanted his name at Giants Stadium. His confrontations with the league’s strikers at the time – most notable Mamadou Diallo – have become the stuff of legend.
After serving as an assistant coach to Hans Backe over the past few seasons, Petke took the top job in January, the 13th head coach in team history. Over the past nine months, he has tried to instill that same New York toughness into his players - including getting into a scuffle with Thierry Henry during a practice session in August - getting them to exactly where he wants mentally and physically.
The MetroStars drafted Petke in 1998. At age 37, he’s incredibly just a year older than Henry. Although Petke leads the franchise in games played with 169, he never won anything with the MetroStars/Red Bulls. This year, his team could win the Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup and he could pick up Coach of the Year honors should things go his way. Petke said this year's team has something special, that something that has led to some impressive wins. The Red Bulls are currently in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 16-9-8 record. Should they win Sunday, the Red Bulls would finish with the best regular-season record in franchise history.
Petke said his players have what it takes to win high-pressure games.
"They have the character to deal with such situations," he said when asked about the regular-season finale against the Fire.
Petke pointed to several wins this season - including those against Sporting Kansas City and Houston (twice) for catapulting his side to the top of the standings. He also expects the fans - the same people who chanted his name years ago - to come out in force and support the team.
"I always expect a great atmosphere…. (The fans) always deliver that for us," he said. "We are playing for them."
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