A lot can change in only two months. Just ask New York Red Bulls rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara.
In March, he was the untested second-round pick surprisingly named the starter for a team which experienced wholesale instability at the position the season before.
Two months later and he's the toast of the town, coming off three straight shutouts, a leading contender for Rookie of the Year, and has already had to deal with his first international call-up drama.
If many pundits and Red Bulls fans were surprised to see the 21 year-old from Fordham University starting on opening day, they weren't the only ones.
“Coming into preseason, I definitely wasn't expecting to come in and start right away,” Meara said in an interview with Goal.com.
After a season in which the Red Bulls started five different goalkeepers, including three with 10 or more starts, New York was expected to stabilize the position by bringing in a veteran keeper. The club was linked with several reinforcements during the preseason, but nothing materialized.
And Meara just kept on impressing.
“As preseason went on and after a couple preseason games, I realized that maybe there was a chance if I kept doing well, that starting spot could be mine,” he said.
“I knew there wasn't a clear-cut starter. There were rumors of bringing in a veteran guy to start but for me, my goal every day was to just come in and impress the staff and the guys around me and just work as hard as I could. I figured if I could do that, only good things could happen,” Meara added.
Eventually, Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe eschewed a veteran option in favor of the untested Meara and so far, his decision has paid off in spades. The rookie leads the league in saves, and has helped the team to three consecutive 1-0 victories en route to a 6-3-1 overall record. He has displayed impressive shot-stopping ability and a command of his box that belies his lack of experience.
When asked how he's experienced such immediate success, however, Meara didn't immediately credit any physical attributes that he may possess.
“It has to do with my demeanor,” he said. “I try not to let too much phase me whether I'm playing great or playing terribly. I think as a goalie, one of the most important things is always trying to stay on an even keel and not get too up or too down depending on how you're playing.”
That demeanor has helped Meara overcome the inevitable growing pains of being a rookie, like when he conceded two soft goals in the the Red Bulls' 5-2 win over Montreal. Any first-year player has to make adjustments and for Meara, it's mainly been about the speed of play in MLS.
“If you ask any rookie, the biggest difference (between college and MLS) is just the pace of the game, he said. "Everything is faster, the guys are a lot bigger and stronger. I think more than anything, they're smarter. In college, there are things that especially as a goalie, I can get away with just because the level of competition wasn't as high as MLS.”
He also credits goalkeeper coach Todd Hoffard, whose guidance has been vital without a veteran goalkeeper on the roster to show Meara the ropes.
“He's been great,” Meara said of Hoffard. “He played for a while so he kind of knows what it's like to be in my shoes as a young guy trying to make a name for himself.”
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No team in Major League Soccer has dealt with as many injuries as the Red Bulls, who have seen regular starters Thierry Henry, Juan Agudelo, Roy Miller, Stephen Keel, Teemu Tainio, Wilman Conde and Rafa Marquez all miss time.
Despite the injury crisis, the team has banded together, notably in the back where Meara has backstopped a defense that has flourished in recent weeks behind untested players like Connor Lade, Tyler Ruthven and Brandon Barklage.
“You never want to have injuries but one of the only positives that ever comes out of an injury is it gives someone else an opportunity,” Meara said. “Every guy that's stepped on the field to replace one of the starting 11 has really made the most of their opportunity.”
In a season already full of surprises, Meara was dealt perhaps his biggest shock two weeks ago when he was called up to Ireland's U-21 squad for European qualifiers. Though born and raised in the United States, Meara is eligible to represent Ireland through his grandparents.
“Up until about a month ago when the whole Ireland thing came up, it's not even something I thought about,” Meara said about his international future.
Due to his position as the unquestioned starter, the Red Bulls denied Meara the opportunity to represent Ireland. For now, the goalkeeper is keeping his international options open, saying he hasn't made up his mind whether he wants to represent Ireland or the United States should they call in the future.
“Right now our focus is on playing with the Red Bulls and winning games here. I think that's a bridge I'll cross if and when I ever get to it,” he said. “I think if you get too wrapped up in that stuff, you can lose focus on the here and now and I can't afford to have that.”
However coy he may be regarding his international future, Meara must still be somewhat astounded that it's become such a talking point just two months into his career.
With the rate that Meara is progressing, who knows what we'll be talking about in another two months.
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