Tim Melia celebrates after saving a penalty kick against the San Jose Earthquakes this year. (Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Tim Melia’s career has been defined by patience, persistence, surviving and finally thriving.
It is a reminder to young, aspiring players that instant gratification isn’t the reason why many play the beautiful game, it is a chance to hone your craft, improve and then prove yourself.
The East Islip High School graduate waited eight years — yes, eight years — for an opportunity to establish himself as a starting goalkeeper in Major League and like a good keeper, Melia grabbed it with both hands, and he hasn’t let go.
Melia is a major reason why Sporting is competing in its second Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open Cup final in three years against the Red Bulls at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET (ESPN2).
Undrafted after graduating from Lynn University in 2008, Melia worked his way up the U.S. soccer pro ladder with stops at the Rochester Rhinos and Charleston Battery (both United Soccer League), and as a back-up at Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA (both MLS). By the time he joined KC in 2014, the 6-1, 190-lb. Melia had but six MLS appearances and five starts.
It was all about learning, especially behind Nick Rimando, a U.S. national team keeper who has held that position at RSL seemingly forever.
“You need to take it day by day,” Melia said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “I’m a big believer that you can learn anything from somebody in front of you or behind you in the pecking order, if you want to say that. Everyone has their own skillset, everyone has their own ability. If you’re open-minded I think you can just continue to learn so you get that opportunity.”
Heck, Melia admitted he wasn’t ready to play regularly in MLS when he joined RSL in 2010.
“I look at as a positive,” he said. “I have had the opportunity to play with very good goalkeepers, very consistent goalkeepers, goalies who have had very good careers in MLS and I have learned a lot from them. Do I wish I had an opportunity to play earlier? Of course, but maybe I wasn’t ready. Who knows? I know when I came to MLS I was 100 percent not ready. I had a lot of catching up to do.”
He acquitted himself well with the Rhinos, so then head coach Jason Kreis brought Melia into RSL.
“I was not ready to play an MLS game,” Melia said. “I had a lot of things to learn. I had a lot of technical aspects I needed to round out. That was a good situation to learn those things. I still have a lot to learn, a lot of things to fix. I just take it game by game. Fortunately, here, Peter [Vermes, the coach] gave me an opportunity to play. I’m grateful for that and I want to repay him every game.”
How Melia hooked up with Kansas City wasn’t necessarily a textbook acquisition. When the club suffered a spate of injuries to its goalkeepers and he was called in from the league’s goalkeeper pool.
Though Melia did not sit the bench for games during his two-week stay with the team, Vermes liked what he saw in training.
“You could easily see he had some really good qualities as a goalkeeper,” said Vermes, who added that Melia was “very powerful, good on line, a good shot stopper.”
Melia was with D.C. United during the playoffs. After United was eliminated, Vermes had Melia fly to Oklahoma to train with Jimmy Nielsen, who backstopped KC to the 2013 MLS Cup crown and who was and still is the coach of OKC Energy FC (USL).
“He was supposed to train for five days. Two and half days in Jimmy called and said, ‘Listen, there’s no doubt that this guy can play. We should sign him.’ I wanted to get somebody else’s opinion outside of ours. I trust Jimmy immensely. Obviously, his identification and evaluation was fantastic.”
Of course, Melia was hardly given the starting role on a silver platter. Chilean international goalkeeper Luis Marin worked between the pipes before the Long Island native was given an opportunity against the Chicago Fire May 3, 2015. He won that game and played well. So he was kept in the lineup. By the time KC suffered a loss with Melia among the Starting XI, the team rattled off a six-game unbeaten streak (4-0-2), while he allowed only three goals. Then came a three-games winning streak.
“When we did put him in, he started to play on a regular basis,” Vermes said. “He deserved it. He was playing very well in practice, working really hard. He was just in form. The one thing i loved about him was that once he got his first opportunity, he never looked back.”
In 2015, He anchored KC’s marched to the Open Cup crown, saving two Philadelphia penalty kicks in the final. Earlier this year, he denied San Jose Earthquake shooters twice in an Open Cup encounter as KC moved on.
In the league, third-place KC (11-6-11, 44 points) is in the midst of a crazy race in the Western Conference as only one point separates the top four teams.
“I think we’re in a good form,” Melia said. “We’re in a really good spot right now in the table. We could be in a better place. I think we kind of let some points slip in the season, a couple of home draws and some late goals that lost us some points. But I don’t think that will translate or make a difference in these type of games. This is a one-off cup game at this point. Both teams want to win more than anything. Form in the MLS season becomes irrelevant. It’s just going to be who is going to be the best team on that day.”
Oh, yeah, we almost forgot to tell you that Melia leads all MLS keepers with a 0.79 goals-against average.
“This year, he truly feels that he’s the guy,” Vermes said. “Even though he’s a little bit older, he’s really taken on to understand that he’s the No. 1. The guys respect him and have an amazing amount of confidence in him.”
But don’t mention to Melia anything about being one of the league’s elite keepers. He has other things on his mind these days.
“I appreciate the support. It’s great to hear. It gives you a lot of confidence,” he said. “But I’m a big believer that the season is not anywhere near over yet. Our most important games are coming up and then playoffs. I’d rather reflect on those things when they are finished. Right now, the only thing on my mind is doing the best I can Wednesday and move forward to LA on Sunday.”