HARRISON, N.J. – For Mike Petke, Thursday night was a chance to party like it was 2000 all over again. And it was a moment and a focal point he’s used repeatedly over the past few months to help define a lesson he’s trying to teach his son.
Petke’s son is playing soccer now and, according to his proud father, is the most competitive player on the field. And like his dad, he has a hard time losing. But in those moments, Petke pulls his son aside and uses this season as a lesson on why players should never give up, just like the resilient Red Bulls have plugged along throughout 2010.
Rewind 10 years ago and the MetroStars were celebrating the first Eastern Conference title in franchise history. Ever thankful for their fans, the players arranged a fireworks show following their final home game at a chilly Giants Stadium to show their appreciation for the support.
A decade later, it was the fans who were giving Petke a tribute. No, Petke didn’t play on Thursday, when the Red Bulls topped New England 2-0 and clinched the top spot in the Eastern Conference for the first time in a decade. But the supporters behind the goal unfurled a flag thanking Petke for his years of service to the club before the match just the same.
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“The first thing I think [when I see that] is that I hope my wife and kids are watching,” Petke joked. “Then they’d think I’m a big deal.”
Could Petke have dreamed up a more fitting end? The Red Bulls will now take home-field advantage into the postseason on the strength of a remarkably resurgent campaign, just one year removed from easily the most disappointing effort in franchise history.
And there through it all was Petke, the retiring local boy and MetroStars throwback who was asked to address the fans after the team’s emotional win.
Petke took the microphone and never spoke once about himself, instead saying that this title was about the fans. It’s a reward for their loyalty throughout the ups and downs. It’s a sign that the team that finished in last place a season ago is suddenly among the favorites to make it to the MLS Cup final.
“I always had a great relationship with the fans because I’ve always been a fan,” Petke said. “I’ve been with them through seven of my 13 years.”
“I don’t think anyone thought this would happen, really, after last year,” defender Jeremy Hall told MLSsoccer.com. “But almost instantly when Hans [Backe] came in, there was a change of mentality, a change of attitude, where we thought this could happen.”
And that change made Petke – perhaps the singular face that unites fans from the MetroStars era through now – smile when thinking about being part of such a dramatic turnaround in such a short amount of time.
He’s a beloved player, a devoted fan and an opportunistic dad. On Thursday, every part of him learned a lesson.
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012