The NP Interview Part 3: To the brink

When we last checked in on Battery midfielder Nicki Paterson, it was Christmas 2010 and the out-of-contract and disheartened young midfielder had just reluctantly taken a call from his agent in a Scottish bar. One 10-minute conference call with Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser later, the most successful period of his professional life was underway.

Paterson completed his third season with the Battery on Aug. 30th at Orlando, but the statistical apex of this professional career so far came in 2012, when everything aligned for him. Anhaeuser had transformed him into an attacking star. Charleston made a run to the USL PRO Championship. He was head-over-heels in love with his fiance, Cheryl McSeveny. And MLS was about to come calling.

But as has so often been the case in Paterson’s career, fate lurked along the sidelines.

The interview

Nicki Paterson playing for Real Maryland in 2010.

Nicki Paterson playing for Real Maryland in 2010.

I was at a point in Scotland where I was really loving being home with my family and friends, but I really wanted to make it out here. I loved the life, the weather. Charleston had been my favorite place out of all the teams I’d seen. It was a very quick phone call. Money was a small factor in my decision, and I was signed and sealed.

It took a long time for my visa to go through, because of the whole (Real Maryland) thing (see Part 2), so I missed all of preseason. I turned up the morning of the Bridge Run. I get in at one in the morning, run the bridge at 7 in the morning. I introduced myself to the guys at the start of the run. I’ve been here since.

My first year in Charleston I did pretty well – eight goals, four assists. For a rookie, I think Auggie (Coach Anhaeuser) was pretty surprised, because I came in as a defensive midfielder. I played every game at defensive midfield for Harrisburg and Maryland, played every minute for literally two years, wasn’t allowed past the halfway line, almost.

I won the league in fouls for two years in a row (at Harrisburg and Maryland) because I was basically the (Amadou Sanyang) of the team, or the (Jarad van Schaik) of the team. I was the guy that stopped the other team going and started the move forward. And coming to Charleston, (Anhaeuser) already had his team almost set. I was so late in getting there that he dropped Zach Prince for me to play right midfield, almost.

Nicki Paterson in his Battery debut, April 9, 2011, against the Charlotte Eages. Charleston Battery photo.

Nicki Paterson in his Battery debut, April 9, 2011, against the Charlotte Eages. Charleston Battery photo.

I started there for five or six games, scored a couple of goals, one of the guys broke his ankle in the middle of the park, and that was me. Center midfielder. And only as the season moved on I became two-way. I became attacking, scored a few goals later on.

(Did that surprise you?)

No. At home I was a forward that scored goals.

(But in the lower age-levels of soccer the best players almost always get slotted as forwards.)

You don’t really sort out your true position until 17 or 18 really anyway. In college I was a defensive mid, that guy that hit diagonals and won tackles and started moves, and I was a late runner into the box, and at the end then you get back and do the defensive stuff as well.

So for me, I just kinda ran with it. Auggie’s the type of guy, if he tells you he thinks something, you just believe him and that’s it.

By the end of the season he’s like “I see you as being an attacking midfielder from next year onward.” And fair enough, there was nothing really going on that off-season,so I came back my second year, tons of confidence. I was an attacking mid, we’re going to score some goals, we’re going to be a good side, we’ve made some good signings.

Nicki Paterson and attacking partner Jose Cuevas both earned first-team All-League honors in 2012.

Nicki Paterson and attacking partner Jose Cuevas both earned first-team All-League honors in 2012.

I felt much, much stronger my second year compared to my first season. Auggie done a good job, having lost half the guys, he replaced them really well. I think a lot of guys that left were guys that weren’t an impact to us, but maybe the impactful guys… I mean (Jose Cuevas), I thought was going to be a sub to start the year. He came in and started really well. Me and him had a decent understanding right away. Just was a good start to the season.

I went on a little bit of a roll come Open Cup time, and it was just one of those seasons when free kicks were going in, goals were getting scored, we were blowing teams out and doing pretty well. Yeah, we had our ups and downs, but individually I had a really consistent season, and even if we lost I was still … playing well.

(Paterson finished his second Battery season with 10 goals in league play, good enough for first on the team and second in the league. In addition to picking up a share of the league championship, he also earned team MVP and All-League honors.)

So come the end of the season, it was weird. It was like last week last season, coming into the quarter-finals, my agent was calling me saying “Such and such a team is interested. This team’s interested.”

(How many MLS teams did you have sniffing around late last summer?)

I think it was three or four MLS teams interested in some capacity or another. I know one team was pretty much offering me a contact for the remainder of the season.

It was three teams that had my rights in the discovery (an arcane MLS rule, aimed at preventing bidding wars for players, that grants clubs exclusive negotiating rights with rising minor league or emerging foreign players — excluding “Designated Players,” and… oh it’s just a bureaucratic mess…), New York being one. It was left up to them whereby, do you want to pass on him and give them to another team and he can go sign a contract, or do you want to bring him in and look at him? And New York sent someone down to watch the (2012 USL PRO Championship) final. I did pretty well, we won it, obviously, and the next day I was gone on a flight.

It was a real exciting time, but it was a tough time. Because the week prior, I knew about the team that was wanting to offer me a contract.

Geoff Cameron of the Houston Dynamo in 2012: Did Dynamo Coach Dom Kinnear plan on replacing Cameron with Paterson for his 2012 playoff stretch run? Magic Eight Ball sez: "Signs point to yes."

Geoff Cameron of the Houston Dynamo in 2012: Did Dynamo Coach Dom Kinnear plan on replacing Cameron with Paterson for his 2012 playoff stretch run? Magic Eight Ball sez: “Signs point to yes.”

The week before, I was all set on the team that was going to offer me a contract. That’s where I wanted to go. They were all keen on me. Basically I had to go there, and if I wasn’t an asshole, I’d have been signed. If you show you’re a team guy and train good your first day. I was going there to replace somebody who was going to the premier league in England, pretty much… The team was sitting very highly in the rankings and they’re a great organization, new stadium. Pretty good setup. I don’t know if that gives it away a little bit for you.

(Well, sort of. The most obvious suspect is Houston, which sent defender/midfieler and U.S. international Geoff Cameron to Stoke City on a $2.7 million transfer in August 2012. Houston spent much of the season in the hunt in the Eastern Conference, opened BBVA Compass Arena in the spring of 2012, and lost in the MLS Championship. There is another a contender, however: in the summer of 2012, Sporting Kansas City was the subject of continuing transfer rumors regarding two of its players: forward Kei Kamara, and midfielder Roger Espinoza, who spent much of the summer in London as the breakout star of Honduras’ Cinderella Olympic team. Like Houston,  SKC is a perennial MLS power with a new stadium — Sporting Park, which opened in 2011. Both Kamara and Espinoza left for England in the off-season.)

I was going (to the mystery team) in view of getting some playing time going down the stretch of the season. But they were only the third team that had my rights in the discovery draft. So I would need two teams to pass on me, both of which wanted to bring me in. So once I knew those two teams were there, going into the week of the final, I knew that other contract was never going to happen.

Digao, a.k.a. "Kaka's brother"

Digao, a.k.a. “Kaka’s brother”

(The way I heard the story was that you had a great trial, but the Red Bulls decided to sign Kaka’s useless brother instead, on the theory that this would entice Kaka to sign as a Designated Player down the road.)

So basically I’m brought into New York. I get there on the Monday and they have to make a decision by the Wednesday, because that’s when the transfer window shut. I seen Kaka’s brother train on the Tuesday. I went in there and killed it for those three days, to the point where I thought I was one of the best guys in practice on the Wednesday.

Decision day: An 11-v-11 game, and I felt like I was the main guy there.

I heard in the morning Kaka was having a fitness test, and based on his fitness test was whether they were going to sign him or not, and he bombed it, supposedly. So I went into that practice with uptmost confidence that I was a New York Red Bulls player. I was in the locker room for the first time. We trained on the field. The stadium was sick. Killed it.

And after practice they brought me in and said they were going with Kaka’s brother.

I didn’t know what to say.

(Then I’ll say it: I think that front office has been run by monkeys for years.)

They treated me exceptionally well, from the kit man to the players.

This decision was solely based on them hoping to get Kaka at some point, which now he’s in Milan and talking about maybe coming to MLS next year. It probably will happen. And in the long run, it might prove to be a good decision. But Kaka’s brother got released a month ago after playing no minutes.

So was he helpful to the team? No. Do I think I could have been able to help that team out? Yeah. He took an international spot, which I would have taken as well. Was it a justified signing for them? I don’t think so. They gave him eighty-grand last year, they gave him two-hundred-grand this year. I would be on $45,000, and I’d have been happy, and I could have given them something.

Former Red Bulls Coach Hans Backe.

Former Red Bulls Coach Hans Backe.

So do I agree with the decision? No. But the coach at that time, in the meeting, Hans Backe, he said in an interview that I had an enormous work rate, covered every blade of the grass, good skill-set, he could see me play a number of positions. He really like me as a player, and he wasn’t ready to let me go.

So what he basically said was he wanted me to stay until the end of the season. He would pay me like per diem, put me up in a hotel the entire rest of the season. I needed someplace to be. I knew I was getting engaged in the off-season. And it kinda was a good fit. I basically get paid until the point when I go home to get engaged. I get to like, stick in with this side, and he was basically saying, “Look, stay here, and you’ll basically have a contract for next season.” In no uncertain terms.

We basically had a couple of offers to work out a deal with some of the other teams that were second and third, but at that point New York were basically saying, “Look, if you want him, you have to give us something for him.” So no team was going to do it. New York wanted me enough to keep me there, and I kinda stopped me going anywhere else.

So the coach got fired at the end of the year, as per request from wherever I go.

(Auggie should be nervous.)

Well, he’s survived three years. I think he’s alright. He’s different from any other manager you meet, so that’s Auggie.

Tim Cahill

Tim Cahill

But at the end of the season, I got really close with (EPL veteran, Austrailian international and current NYRB Designated Player) Tim Cahill, actually to the point one day where we sat at lunch and he said “Why can you not get in the 18?” And I said “I’m not signed.” He’s like “What do you mean?” He was on international duty when this whole thing happened when I came in, and he just turned up and all the sudden we were marking each other and going against each other. He said “How are you not involved right now? You should be playing.”

I explained to him the whole story, and he was raging. To the point when he went straight into the front office saying, “You need to sign this kid!”

I guess it was common knowledge when I left. Hans Backe had said to me, “Look, a few of the first team guys have approached us. They see you as part of the team. We’ll be in touch in the off-season.” He never was. He got let go and went back to Europe. I was actually surprised when I got the call in late December, early January, that they’d invited me back in for preseason.

Mike Petke was sort of the reserve coach, and I played a couple of Reserve games while I was there and done really well. I played the best game of my life in New England. We beat them in there and… basically the first-team played a game and we played right after them. Started off there were 20,000 there. We kicked off at 10:15, and by the end of the game there were hundreds of people there. I had a really good game, and the first team had all stayed and watched the game, so I thought, “I’m going to be a Red Bull next season, hopefully.”

Dax McCarty

Dax McCarty

So … I got the call. I go back in for preseason. I left on my birthday in Scotland to go to preseason, and I was obviously engaged by this point, and I was leaving Cheryl not knowing whether we were going back to Charleston, going back to New York.

Obviously this time was a little bit different. They had Juninho there, who played my position. They had Tim Cahill, they had (fellow Scot and midfielder Dax McCarty), who had just signed a new contract. And more than anything else, I was one of the last guys to leave preseason, and it more came down to the whole politics of the situation.

We pretty much agreed what my contract would be after they offered me it. Because again, I wasn’t there for the money, I was there for the roster spot. It kinda came down to that they need me as an international guy to be that 12th, 13th guy on the roster, who will maybe be a first-team player down the line, or they need somebody to come in and impact the team right away. And they signed Luyindula from PSG. Can’t really compete with that.

Nicki-at-RB-stadium

Corey Hertzog, a former Red Bulls draft choice who starred for Wilmington in 2012, took this photo of Nicki Paterson at Red Bulls Arena in the fall of 2012. Herzog went on to sign with the Vancouver Whitecaps, while Paterson returned to Charleston — despite turning in some his best soccer.

I mean, I lost out to Kaka’s brother and a guy from (superclub Paris Saint-Germain) on the two times I went to New York. I can leave there knowing that I wasn’t not-good-enough or I got that great end meeting with New York. Petke and (Sporting Director) Andy Roxburgh, who is Scottish, who when he signed I thought I was in there for sure. They love my attitude. I brought it every day in practice. I got assessed in every single game I played for New York, in four games. I impacted the game, you know? I was on a high.

It was probably the best soccer I’ve been playing in my whole career when I was there. And it just wasn’t the right time.

When I left New York (in the winter), there was the possibility of maybe going in to Seattle. Seattle wanted me going after two weeks of preseason, but New York asked me to stay another week. Didn’t know what to do. Decided to stay in New York the extra week, and in that time Seattle signed (former MLS All-Star and Designated Player) Shalrie Joseph. And I was left with nothing in the end.

(Do you have any ongoing discussions with those teams that were interested in the past?)

It’s all down to what their need is, I guess, for MLS. If they’ve got international spots and someone injured, and they’re in the hunt? If not, we don’t. I feel like teams don’t just go out and sign people just for the sake of it. And you’ll find at the end of our season, two or three guys (from USL PRO) go MLS, at the most. Out of the whole league. It’s a really small window. It’s usually somebody they’ll really pinpoint that can come in and impact their team.

Right now I’ve got nothing concrete. My agent speaks to several teams that admire me as a player. I’m definitely not in the same situation this season that I was last season. For a number of reasons. Maybe I didn’t have quite as good a year. We didn’t win the trophy this year. People don’t have the same need that they’ve had. I don’t know.

Last year I was one goal away from being in the running for MVP of the league. I missed a penalty in the last game of the season to be the top goal scorer and top points in the whole league. Which will never happen again.

But one penalty, you know what I mean? Had I got that and been top points scorer as a midfielder? Maybe somebody offers you a contract right off the bat. You never know.

NEXT UP: Paterson returns to Charleston for the start of the turbulent 2013 season.

TOP IMAGE: Nicki Paterson in uniform at Red Bulls Arena in 2012.