During the opening weeks of the MLS season, New York Red Bulls defender Mike Petke tried all manner of tricks to keep first-year teammate Tim Ream from becoming overconfident. The veteran teasingly gave Ream the nickname "Roy," in reference to the Rookie of the Year hype that has surrounded him. And when that grew old, he started calling Ream "The Prodigy."
Yet in the aftermath of New York's 4-0 defeat at the hands of the San Jose Earthquakes last week, one in which no Red Bulls player performed well, one thing stood out: All joking aside, Ream is perfectly capable of keeping things in perspective all by himself.
After watching the rookie defender barely take a false step in the team's first six games, Petke called the match Ream's "welcome-to-the-pros moment." Yet Ream's mood after the game was nearly identical to his demeanor 36 hours earlier: composed, matter-of-fact, analytical. And his frank assessment of his own performance in a game in which the Red Bulls played with 10 men for most of the match lent more credence to the idea that Ream, just seven games into his MLS career, is a player for the future. Not that he was buying any of that last Saturday.
"That's probably the worst game I've played all year," Ream said. "Unfortunately, it comes at a bad time. [I was] tracking runners when I shouldn't track runners, not playing guys offside when I could have played them offside -- just mental mistakes.
"It wasn't just me. The whole team struggled. But at the end of the day, you have to look at yourself and rate your own performance, and that one was not a good one for me."
That composure and ability to stay calm under the toughest of circumstances is perhaps the biggest reason why Ream has turned heads during his initial foray into MLS, and in the process helped get New York off to a 5-2-0 start. His positional sense, as well as his ability to play precise passes out of the back, have also drawn rave reviews, especially from head coach Hans Backe.
"You see MLS center backs going abroad to Europe; they're normally tall, strong guys," Backe said. "But [in Ream] we have one whose technical level is absolutely top-class. The thing is, even when he is under pressure he finds options all the time for the perfect build-up. He reads the game very well, and he adapted to our playing style, our instructions. He's a clever guy."
Ream's arrival in New York came courtesy of a calculated risk. General manager Erik Soler and assistant coach Richie Williams first noticed Ream at the MLS Player Combine, even though by the player's own admission he didn't perform well. But with three selections among the first 18 picks in the MLS SuperDraft, and with plenty of holes to fill, New York selected Tony Tchani and Austin da Luz with its first two selections and then hoped Ream would still be available.
"All of the other teams went for the more athletic ones, so I think we saw it a little bit different," Backe said. "No one wanted to pick him, in a way. First round, second round … we had our fingers crossed. I don't know which team it was in front of us, but when we got the chance, we said, 'OK, we'll go for Tim Ream.'"
Once on board, Ream quickly displayed qualities that are atypical of defenders produced by the U.S. player development system, in which athleticism often is preferred over brains. But when asked how and where his skill on the ball was honed, Ream is quick to laud his time playing for his youth club, St. Louis Scott Gallagher.
"[SLSG is] all about technical ability and playing the ball on the ground, being composed on the ball," Ream said. "Every position, they want you to be able to play with your feet and play smart, and I think that's where that comes from."
But clearly, Ream's low-key personality also has played a part in his success. Ream's coach at Saint Louis University, Dan Donigan (now head coach at Rutgers), could recall just one time during the defender's four years in college when he even came close to losing his cool, and that was in practice, never in a game.
"We saw a little fire come out," Donigan said. "One of the bottom guys on the team put a bad tackle on [Ream], and he got upset -- and rightfully so. That was really the one time where we saw a little bit of an edge to him, to where he was ready to retaliate. But he still had the composure and the professionalism to just bite it and move on to the next play."
It's an incident that Ream now recalls with a chuckle. The player in question was in a situation similar to the one Ream finds himself in now, a first-year player doing what he can to make an impression on his teammates. The other guy, as Ream put it, just "went about it the wrong way." Ream remains intent, however, on not making such outbursts a habit.
"Mentally, you'll get flustered, but I don't like to show that on the field," he said. "You won't ever see me freak out on the field and go off on somebody and just completely have a breakdown. I play composed and, mentally, I try to stay composed as well. And those two things together is what's really helping me."
Yet Ream also admits there have been times when his unassuming demeanor might have held him back. He never tried out for the U.S. Soccer Federation's Olympic Development Program, which is often used to identify young players. As a consequence, he never was on the radar of any of the U.S. youth national team coaches. And Backe thinks that given Ream's technical ability, he should have turned pro at age 18 instead of "playing against kids" in the U.S. college system.
But Ream has no regrets about the path he took to becoming a professional. He insists that his game, in every facet, lacked the maturity for him to turn pro so early, and that his time in college was a huge benefit.
"I've put on probably 20 pounds since coming out of high school, so from that standpoint, the physical game would have killed me -- I wouldn't have been able to make it," he said. "Skill-wise, it was there, but it wasn't as well developed as it is now, and that would have hurt me as well."
It certainly hasn't hurt Ream's game so far, although all concerned admit there is a long way to go. Backe, rather prophetically, said before the San Jose game that he thought there were times when Ream took too many risks. Sure enough, Quakes forward Chris Wondolowski picked Ream's pocket in the first half, feeding Ryan Johnson for a breakaway that was saved by Bouna Coundoul.
But those errors have been scarce in a season during which Ream has done plenty to solidify New York's back line. And Petke, for all his jibes, knows the Red Bulls have a player on their hands who could anchor the back line for years to come.
"If [Ream] keeps going the way he's going -- with his maturity level and his willingness to learn, and his ability to overcome certain things -- I see nothing but the top of the world for him," Petke said.
And no doubt, through it all, Ream's feet will remain rooted firmly to the ground.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.