How Sporting KC’s Tim Melia went from nomad ‘going wrong way’ to pillar of club

A decade ago this summer, Tim Melia was a 27-year-old soccer nomad whose search for a home in the game had taken him to the verge of nothing left on the horizon.

He was adrift after being affiliated with four MLS clubs that year and had no clear path forward after the most scrambled sequence of his career.

After being released in the middle of the 2014 MLS season by Chivas USA, a franchise that would fold months later, he was relegated to a so-called pool goalkeeper. The contractual obligation, a surprise to Melia, enabled the league to extract something from his $75,000-a-year salary as an emergency alternative for teams in sudden dire need.

Adding to the indignity, even those apparent opportunities seemed to be mere fool’s gold. He never played a minute for any of three teams that called him up: FC Dallas, Sporting KC and D.C. United.

The latter put an exasperating exclamation mark on the point when Kansas City called him in Los Angeles the day before a playoff match in Washington, and summoned him out on a red-eye flight only to say they didn’t need him to suit up.

Melia’s “career was going the wrong way,” as Sporting coach Peter Vermes recently put it.

And Melia hardly was in denial.

Increasingly conscious of his age after only five starts and zero victories in MLS games over five seasons, he wondered if this career just wasn’t meant to be and started taking job interviews with brokerage firms in late 2014.

But then two improbable and independent actions reset everything for Melia, who will be in the spotlight on Saturday when Sporting KC plays host to Inter Miami FC and intergalactic star Lionel Messi at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.

An impression he somehow made on Vermes during that fleeting and seemingly lost time here in 2014 — and Melia’s resolve to devote himself into one last thrust at making it — led to him emerging as a pillar for Sporting.

Almost immediately, plays like this one by Sporting Kansas City goal keeper Tim Melia (at left, knocking away a ball against the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Houston Dynamo;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Houston Dynamo</a> in 2015) endeared him to KC fans ... and manager Peter Vermes. KC STAR FILE PHOTO

He’s the club’s career leader in regular-season wins, shutouts and saves and has become rooted in the area, where his wife, Kristen, gave birth to all three of their children (and where he also is a real estate agent).

While Melia recalls that he wasn’t going to let the looming potential end of his soccer career make him bitter or define him, he also reckoned he’d better reconcile that by pouring himself into one last chance.

Or, more accurately, as he’d later see it, his first real chance.

So the man who’d become a last resort of sorts for the MLS set about his own last resort.

“I’m a released goalie,” he said in one of several interviews with The Star over the last few weeks. “It doesn’t really matter how old I am or whether I’m capable or not: At the end of the day, I’m a goalie without a team; I’m going on trial.”

So he made sure he demonstrated he was all-in even in the virtual anonymity of his pool roles, including his weeks with Sporting KC. And he did what he called “a lot of weird stuff” to tell himself he was maximizing his final stand.

Much of what he meant was simply the sheer amount of training, hours and hours a day, but he smiled as he described the most exotic element: doing plyometrics on the beach at Belmont Shore Pier, which he described as being “on a beach by myself, jumping in sand, and things like that to try to make everything work.”

Picturing that scene now, he thought about how few people were around in those early afternoons. And how nobody was watching or knew who he was.

But part of this story is about how you never know who’s watching, even when you feel like you’re invisible.

And it turned out that Vermes and Sporting had taken notice of him as he was more or less passing through.

As he thinks back now, Vermes recalls that he actually wasn’t really paying any attention to Melia then because, well, he was “just there to fill the void” among injured goalkeepers that 2014 season.

“And I remember all of a sudden he caught my eye, like, on two plays,” he said.

Whatever else went into it, Vermes became intrigued, especially amid the flux and injuries among that season’s goalkeeping unit.

So even as Melia was leaving Kansas City, they spoke of the possibility of signing him for the next season. And after the season, Vermes arranged for Melia to be worked out and assessed by former Sporting KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, then coaching for the Oklahoma City Energy of the USL.

That was supposed to last for some five days, Vermes recalled. But by day two, Nielsen called and said, “You need to sign the guy.”

Not that Melia was being handed the starting job, though.

Sporting KC five days earlier, in December 2014, had signed Chilean Luis Marin, the presumptive starter.

But eight matches into the 2015 season, as Vermes put it, “it wasn’t going so well” for Marin.

So on May 3, 2015, Vermes gave Melia a chance — and almost immediately got a revealing and indelible impression that he brings up to this day.

With a chest-high through-ball coming Melia’s way, and a Chicago Fire player bearing down on him outside the box, Melia suddenly was in an awkward, even compromised, position.

Since he couldn’t use his hands, Vermes wondered if Melia might chest it away … but then what?

Instead, Melia plunged into a diving header that Vermes thought of as having been driven “like, all the way up the field.”

Turning toward the bench, Vermes remembered saying, “Well, that’s a pretty good first action.”

He added, “Like, way to take your moment, right?”

A moment a long time coming … but a moment that morphed into a long time going now.

Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia leaps to save a shot against the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:New England Revolution;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">New England Revolution</a>. Paul Rutherford/USA TODAY Sports

Melia has been entrenched in Kansas City virtually since that night, when he earned his first MLS victory and shutout and was presented the game ball by Sporting KC star Matt Besler.

Afterward, Melia spoke of a “new lease on life with soccer” that he felt with Sporting.

But Melia, who would go on to become the 2017 MLS goalkeeper of the year and who at 15 MLS seasons is tied for the second-longest active tenure among the league’s goalkeepers, couldn’t have known how true that would be.

“He never looked back,” Vermes said.

In the weeks to come, per The Star’s Sam McDowell, forward Dom Dwyer would call him “a savior.” But Melia also was finding salvation, at least in terms of the game.

By the end of 2015, during which he compiled a 15-8-5 record across all competitions, Melia was named the league’s comeback player of the year.

When he was nominated for the award, Melia recalled initially thinking the very idea was strange.

“I don’t know what I came back from,” he said, laughing.

In fact, you could say it was from nothing.

Or from the edge of a career abyss.

However you’d look at it now, Melia is endlessly grateful for the opportunity, the award and all that’s come since at the position he gravitated to when he was 5 or 6 years old back in New York state.

Whether it was because that’s where the real action would compel him to flick off the helmet he was supposed to be wearing about anytime someone approached the goal or, as he joked, he just didn’t want to run, he loved the position and became intent on taking it as far as he could.

So he shrugged it off when one coach used a megaphone to walk around the field and berate players, something he now figures strengthened him.

And on the precipice of finally stepping away, he found something more and deeper — and something else to reach back for that serves him well now: the sort of perspective that comes with that kind of perseverance.

To this day, when he’s second in the league in the advanced metric of post-shot expected goals he’s saved, the 37-year-old Melia takes none of this for granted.

That’s why Vermes sees him as a vital team leader and someone who’s always listening and trying to get better.

Perhaps his uncanny knack for saving penalty kicks reflects that cerebral approach, and no wonder he’s made it a proprietary matter.

“I feel like I’ve gotten vaguer and vaguer,” he said with a smile.

Allowing as how he wants every possible shred of information, and that it stems from a certain formula, he added “It’s not just research. It’s instinctual. It’s scores, it’s the player, it’s what they’re looking at. How they approach the ball. There’s so many little cues.

“Do it longer, like anything else, you get better at it.”

Something that 10 years ago he could never have imagined he’d still be saying about soccer — until he grasped the slightest of openings with one last gasp.