Tim Melia celebrates his amazing accomplishment of saving three straight penalty kicks. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
In his three decades-plus in professional soccer, Peter Vermes admits that he had never seen anything like it.
The Sporting Kansas City head coach had never witnessed a goalkeeper stop the first three attempts of a penalty-kick shootout; that is, until Sunday night.
That’s when East Islip, N.Y. native Tim Melia performed the feat to help boost KC into the Western Conference semifinals of the MLS Cup playoffs at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan.
“He’s just really good at it,” said Vermes, whose top-seeded team defeated the No. 8 San Jose Earthquakes in the tie-breaker, 3-0 after playing to 3-3 epic deadlock after 120 minutes regulation and extratime at Children’s Mercy Park.
“I’ve never seen that in my life. I’ve never seen a goalkeeper make the first three saves in penalty kicks. I’ve never witnessed it. It says a lot about Tim. He does this regularly. It’s something special that he has. It really is. He’s a different level. I don’t get surprised a lot, but I was surprised tonight.”
In fact, Melia became the first goalkeeper in the league’s 25-year history to perform such a feat.
Melia delivered the heroics by saving spot kicks from Osvaldo Alanis, Jackson Yueill and Cristian Espinoza to improve to 6-0 in shootouts in his career. Sporting’s Johnny Russell, Ilie Sanchez and Khiry Shelton converted their attempts to cap one of the greatest games in the stadium’s history.
“It’s unreal,” said Gianluca Busio, who scored in second-half stoppage time before the Quakes’ Chris Wondolowski countered several minutes later to knot things up at 3-3. “I’ve watched a lot of soccer and even played a lot of FIFA and I’ve never seen anything like that. To make three saves in a row is just unreal. The guy’s amazing at them and I can’t even score on him in practice, so it makes it a lot easier on the takers when you have a goalkeeper like Tim to save the penalties.
A graduate of East Islip High School and a former member of the Long Island Rough Riders and Rochester Rhinos, Melia said he had “no secrets to speak of,” when it comes to stopping penalties.
“I just want to advance,” he added. “If I save all of them or if I save zero and we advance, the focal point is we want to advance and we just want to do well for our club and for ourselves and for our families. The individual effort isn’t as important to me as the collective effort and accomplishing goals we set out at the beginning of the year.”
When asked about the mental aspect of goalkeeping, the 34-year-old Melia replied, “I don’t know how much of a mental game it is. I don’t think people — especially field players — spend a whole lot of time studying goalkeepers. The percentage of penalty saves is so small that if they hit a really good penalty more than likely it’s not going to be saved. So, I don’t think that shooters think about the goalkeeper, but I could be wrong.”
Roger Espinoza gave Sporting an early lead before the Earthquakes surged ahead through Carlos Fierro and Shea Salinas. After Ilie Sanchez pulled the hosts level in the opening moments of the second half, 18-year-old Busio became the youngest MLS player to record a goal and an assist in a playoff match by firing the hosts into a 3-2 lead a minute into stopping time. Wondolowski, the league’s all-time goal-scoring leader, salvaged a last-gasp equalizer for San Jose to force extratime.
“Wondo shatters me by a landslide,” Melia said. “What he’s done in this league is incredible and how he is as a person. He’s humble. He’s the hardest working guy even now at 37. I just told him after the game that I hope he keeps going. Scoring that big-time goal in a game, that’s not the year to end on. He has the quality to keep going. He has the engine to keep going and that’s a character you want in your locker room, so I hope he continues.”
Sporting KC will continue in the playoffs, hosting either fourth-seeded Minnesota United FC or No. 5 Colorado Rapids Dec. 1 or 2.