There are plenty of "what ifs?" regarding the 2011 New York Red Bulls. Nobody can deny that the team had plenty of talent despite failing to make a significant postseason run. There were several reasons for that team's inability to win a title, including injuries to lineup mainstays, and also personality clashes. Another problem that plagued the Red Bulls throughout 2011 was the lack of consistency at goalkeeper. Bouna Coundoul, Greg Sutton and Frank Rost all struggled, and New York head coach Hans Backe and the team's front office decided to start all over at 'keeper this past winter.
Enter rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara. Despite being regarded as the best goalkeeper available in the 2012 Major League Soccer SuperDraft, Meara fell all the way to the Red Bulls at pick 31. Reports at the time were that New York selected Meara as a "work in progress," one who would go on to learn as an understudy behind a veteran goalkeeper. Meara impressed the team's coaching staff throughout the team's preseason training, however, and he was given an opportunity to keep the starting gig.
I'd say the job is now officially Meara's to lose. Meara has been one of the league's most consistent goalkeepers during the first two months of the season. You wouldn't have known that fact just by looking at the team's results in their first seven games, contests in which the Red Bulls gave up at least one goal per game. Of those 14 goals, only one (at most) came as a result of a "you probably should have saved that" attempt. The New York back line routinely betrayed Meara by making costly and inexcusable mistakes, miscues from which no goalkeeper could recover. While Meara did begin to get visibly frustrated during the month of April, he did well to put such moments out of his memory at the end of matches.
Meara earned the first clean sheet of his MLS career on April 28, as he and a makeshift back line that was missing multiple starters held the New England Revolution scoreless in a 1-0 win. The Red Bulls then stunned many in MLS by keeping Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Mike Magee, Juninho and David Beckham scoreless when away to LA Galaxy, New York's second consecutive 1-0 victory. Heading into New York's midweek home game against Houston Dynamo, Meara is tied for second in the league in total saves made, just two behind league leader Nick Rimando.
The 2011 Red Bulls weren't just a goalkeeper away from being a championship side. Just as poor defending can result in a goalkeeper losing confidence, a solid goalkeeper also provides a boost to defenders who would otherwise be questioning their abilities each time they took the pitch. Ryan Meara being in Hans Backe's team last summer probably wouldn't have prevented Rafael Marquez from having several "breakdowns" during the second half of the campaign. Perhaps if Tim Ream and his fellow teammates would have played just a bit better in front of one solid 'keeper during the summer months, however, New York would have avoided that necessary Wild Card playoff game that ultimately resulted in the Red Bulls truly starting postseason play against eventual champs LA Galaxy.
Two 1-0 wins do not scream "future MLS champs" regardless of the team that has picked up such victories. Unlike last spring, the Red Bulls currently have a reliable starting goalkeeper, one who is (as far as we know) actually getting along with his head coach and the team front office. It's still way too early to call Meara the "goalkeeper of the future."
With that said, I'm thrilled to call him New York's goalkeeper of right now.