“Stability? In sport?” chuckled goalkeeper Tim Melia, a wry edge in his voice, when asked about his new lease on professional life at Sporting Kansas City. “What’s that?”
He might be the best keeper in Major League Soccer on current form, racking up 10 shutouts this season alone. But that doesn’t mean the SKC No.1 takes anything for granted. “You’re only as good as your last game,” admitted Melia, a man who earned his first starting gig in the American top-flight at the ripe old age of 29. “I know that more than the next guy because of all I’ve been through.”
An agile shot-stopper with an eye for quick breaks, the Long Island native paid his dues in the lower leagues with Rochester Rhinos before Real Salt Lake drafted him in 2010. And of course, there at the top of the pyramid, it was all money, comfort and the professional dream. Happily ever after, right? Not quite.
From Chivas to the Pool
He was released from his contract after barely a full year in Utah and quickly landed one of the worst gigs in MLS: back-up at Chivas USA. He made six appearances for the ill-fated club and conceded 12 goals, an average of two per game. It’s one of those stats that’s a damned lie, a reflection more on the now-defunct club’s mismanagement than Melia’s chops between the posts.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, when Chivas went belly up in 2014, Melia ended up in MLS’ goalkeeper pool – where no one wants to be at age 28. He was a gun-for-hire, a back-up who’d travel to fill a hole. “It’s not the situation I wanted to be in,” he said, remembering his days without a home. He was a body, quite literally, making up the numbers, on contract with the league but not with a team. “But it was my reality.”
Melia took a novel approach to climb out. “I treated every stretch where I got in front of an MLS coach as a straight-up trial,” he said of those days having earned only a handful of starts and watching his dream die slowly. “I was pretty intense about it. I went all out. I did whatever needed doing – shagging balls or putting myself in front of hundreds of shots.”
Then-LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena allowed Melia to practice with his squad, affording the keeper at least a modicum of stability between Pool loans. “I just went across the hall, changed my shirt and trained with the Galaxy,” said Melia, who talks about the ins and outs of the game as you would expect, like someone who watched closely and paid attention to the details. “I put everything into it.”Once he flew across the country only to have a coach change his mind when he arrived with a bag in hand and bleary-eyed. For a competitor like Melia, a pro in his bones desperate for a chance, it was cruel. He considered hanging up his gloves for good. But he pushed on. And when Sporting had a need in 2015, all three of their keepers down to injury, they put a call in for Melia. He packed another bag – maybe it was already by the door from last time out – and made his way to Kansas City.
He got his chance this time. For real. He pounced on the opportunity offered by coach Peter Vermes. His talent, determination and attitude – honed through the hard times – were obvious. It might be a trick of the eye, but Melia seems to hold the ball a little tighter and smother it more completely than other keepers, careful not to let the chance he’d waited so long for slip through his fingers. He was named the league’s Comeback Player of the Year in 2015, a sideways honor he scoffs at, and is in the hunt for both an MLS and U.S. Open Cup crown this year.
A Place to Call Home
He’s expansive when talking about what it means to play at home. There’s genuine gratitude when conversation turns to the fans at Children’s Mercy Park. “It’s huge. You sleep in your own bed and train at your own field,” he said. “You keep your own routine. And then you get a little bit of extra energy from the fans and it makes all the difference. You drop these fans into the equation and it’s a recipe for perfection.”
It’s not just the fans, who chant his name, a name few knew two years ago, who’ve come to love Melia. He’s earned the respect of his teammates, which can’t be too hard when you concede one goal in your last six home games – over 540 minutes of soccer. “Unbelievable,” center-back Matt Besler said of Melia, while coach Vermes once called his go-to man: “The Hulk.”
Melia admits to having a special place in his heart for for the Open Cup. He won the competition in 2015, his first year in KC. “For a guy who became a starter so late in his career, I got my chances to play in the Open Cup,” he said about the dark days when an Open Cup outing was a hint of light in a life of anonymity. “If you played well and got a result, you could make more minutes for yourself. I love the tournament. There’s opportunities in it.”
He also likes having it all on the line. “Open Cup games are the kind where you just have to do anything to get through,” said Melia, now 31 and lynchpin of the league’s meanest defense. “It doesn’t matter if you win 5-4 or 1-0 or on penalties, you just need to win. It’s five games to a trophy and here at SKC we take that very seriously.
Sporting Kansas City face Houston Dynamo – currently their closest chasers in the Western Conference – on the road in the next round. “They’re quick on the counter and good at home – they haven’t lost at their place yet this season,” said Melia, rattling off the scouting report on his next opponent in the Cup’s Round of 16. He won’t be fazed by a quick road trip and he knows, with one more win – pretty or ugly, it’s back to home sweet home for the Quarters.