Cristian Espinoza, the San Jose Earthquakes’ best player this season, stepped up for his team’s first penalty shootout attempt.

Their Western Conference Wild Card match at Sporting Kansas City ended in a 0-0 draw after regulation time, and the No. 9 seed was spot-kicks away from potentially upsetting the No. 8 seed. Things should have been a proverbial toss-up.

The issue? SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia stood in between the posts on that Oct. 25 night at Children’s Mercy Park.

Ultimately, Espinoza’s shot was saved when Melia dove to his left. Jackson Yueill also skied his effort over the crossbar, and the 37-year-old veteran was fingertips away from stopping conversions from Jack Skahan and Carlos Akapo when sprawling to his right.

The legend is well-established at this point. SKC won 4-2 in PKs to advance in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, aided by Dániel Sallói’s decisive shot, and Melia reached a perfect 7-for-7 in penalty shootouts during his professional career.

“A PK against us, you're more surprised if he doesn't save it,” SKC captain Johnny Russell told MLSsoccer.com earlier this week. “And that's an insane thing to say about a goalkeeper. I've played with a lot of goalkeepers, played against a lot of goalkeepers who are good in those situations. But he is almost like a cheat code at times.

“Penalty situations are always ones where you practice and practice, but until you're in that moment it's hard to replicate that. And when you have him in goal, it eases your mind and pressure so much knowing you've got him there. If you're losing in PKs, it's not going to be down to him. It's going to be down to you not doing your job because you know for a fact he's going above and beyond with his.”

Secret sauce

That dynamic could unfold again Sunday, when Sporting KC welcome St. Louis CITY SC for Game 2 in their Round One Best-of-3 series (5 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), taking the lead via a 4-1 victory last weekend at CITYPARK. Another win sends Peter Vermes’ red-hot group into the Western Conference Semifinals and knocks out their newfound Midwest rival, whose dream expansion season earned them a No. 1 seed.

In Melia, Sporting KC have the ultimate X-factor. And midfielder Roger Espinoza thinks it’s no mistake his teammate and close friend has developed this reputation. 

“There has to be some type of movement he notices,” Espinoza said. “I hope he never tells anybody ever because if he has the key to it, he should hold on tight. 

“He must see something when the player is walking up, running, about to shoot. There has to be something that tells him where the guy is going. He's the best to ever do it. If you're going into a penalty shootout, you have someone who gives you the confidence. It boosts the guys shooting on our team because knowing Timmy is on your side, out of the five he's at least going to save one.”

Espinoza need not worry. Melia doesn’t plan on divulging his secret anytime soon, or potentially ever.

“I haven't really made my mind up with that yet,” Melia said. “Whenever I get asked the question, I try to explain it and am always pretty vague. I have to be. What I'll say is we spend a lot of time preparing for those types of things, from the goalie coach and myself. I think it's more the result of the work.”

Tim Melia - Salloi congrats

Winding road

That humility is also a nod to Melia’s long-winding professional career, well before he became Sporting’s all-time goalkeeping leader in appearances (263) wins (114) and shutouts (76) across all competitions – as well as a two-time US Open Cup champion (2015, ‘17). He even earned Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and Best XI presented by Continental Tire honors in 2017.

Melia, like most aspiring pro goalkeepers, was a backup early on. The Long Island native broke through at lower-league side Rochester Rhinos after a two-stop collegiate career (SUNY Oneonta and Lynn University), then got his MLS shot at the turn of the decade. But he was behind Nick Rimando at Real Salt Lake (2010-11), Dan Kennedy at now-defunct Chivas USA (2012-14) and spent time as an MLS pool goalkeeper (2014).

The latter stop, after being released midseason by Chivas USA, is where Melia’s journey gained perspective. He stayed fit by essentially walking across the hall and asking then-LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena if he could train. The clubs both played at what’s now Dignity Health Sports Park, so he didn’t have to uproot himself.

But the nomadic lifestyle of a pool goalkeeper – Melia was in his late 20s and didn’t have a club, instead getting loaned to teams on an emergency basis and training in between temporary stops – raised some hard-hitting questions.

“I wasn't having fun,” Melia said. “I was older and the other guys were first-year pros basically. It was a difficult pill to swallow, but I decided to use it to my advantage and knew I'd have to go on trial somewhere at some point after that season anyways, so let's try it and hopefully, because I am older and do have experience, I'll get called in a few more times. And I'll take each turn, whoever called me in, as an opportunity to be on trial for free in a situation where they potentially might need me.

“ … You're not stationed anywhere, you are constantly going in and out of groups. You're there to be an expensive cone essentially; you're just in shooting drills in practice. But I knew I wanted to give it one really big push.”

Melia, during one pool goalkeeper stint, caught the eye of SKC manager and sporting director Peter Vermes. He was offered a contract for the 2015 season and hasn’t looked back since supplanting former Chile international Luis Marín mid-year. At long last, he had a home.

“That's valuable, but when a coach gives you an opportunity in the ninth or 10th game, you're with all the first-selection guys, that's a real opportunity you crave as a backup goalkeeper. Peter was the first person to ever do that for me.”

Tim Melia pass upfield

Leadership by example 

Now, it’s hard to separate Melia and SKC. He’s helped lead the team to seven playoff appearances in the last nine seasons, including two first-place finishes in the Western Conference. His PK heroics apply to the regular season, too, making 15 such saves (most in MLS since 2015).

Melia attributes this longevity to consistency, arguably the hardest trait for any professional to bottle up.

“My style of play isn't very flashy and, for me, the better goalkeepers in this league are just insanely consistent,” Melia said. “They do the things they're supposed to do 95% of the time. It's not always about making the acrobatic saves, so that's been my approach.

“It comes a little from playing with guys like Nick Rimando, who was so consistent in everything he did. Dan Kennedy, he was on a Chivas team that was not good, but he was so consistent in making big saves and plays that he was supposed to. I've tried to emulate both styles of their game and be that person the team, the coaches know they can rely on.”

As Espinoza tells it, he’s also the type of guy you simply want to be around.

“I don't have kids, but one day do want to have a family,” Espinoza said. “So talking to Timmy about that, seeing that side of him as a father – it's almost a role model and someone you want to follow with how he carries himself.

“It could even be having a drink or inviting him to my bachelor party and he showed up two days later, acts like he's been there the whole time. Even if it's for a short period, he shows up from US to Mexico to hang out. He's just that guy and I appreciate him. You learn from guys like that. We're close in age, been here for over eight years on the team. He almost becomes family to you.”

For his part, Russell said he seeks council from Melia about topics around the team. Their kids are close in age as well and they spend time together outside the training facility. Yet when asked for a behind-the-scenes story, the Scotsman turns to tequila of all things.

“He got me into that, so I always have him to thank because I love my tequila now,” Russell said with a wry smile. “There’s times we go out for a drink and he's always good fun. For a big guy, he doesn't handle alcohol too well. You would think with that big frame he'd soak it up, but he's a bit of a lightweight.

“He's a good guy, I always love spending time with. There's never a dull moment and it's fun to be around, no matter the situation he's invested in it. He's never one to shy away from having fun.”

Tim Melia postgame with kids

MLS Cup chase

As Espinoza and Russell both noted, Melia’s also a father of three kids: two daughters and one son, spanning ages 2 to 6. That range makes it difficult for them to watch many games in person, especially at night, but Sunday’s late-afternoon kickoff vs. St. Louis means they’ll all be in attendance. He stresses his wife, Kristen, “makes everything tick.”

Even more, SKC started the year 10 games winless (0L-3L-7D) before becoming the West’s best team since May and qualifying for the postseason via a do-or-die Decision Day match vs. Minnesota United FC. That makes Melia, who spent several months sidelined with a quad injury before returning in late summer, appreciate the “rollercoaster of emotions.”

“How many times have you seen the lower-seeded team pull things off? In MLS, the seeding's a little more forgiving where there are really good teams that dipped at the wrong time of the year or struggled at one point,” Melia said.

“Our group understands what we're capable of but also understands and knows we didn't do nearly well enough in the beginning of the year and deserve to be in the position we're in. We know we don't have the opportunity to play another game at home if we advance, so let's make the most of it.”

For Melia, in his career’s later stages, moments like these mean a little extra. Perhaps it involves raising MLS Cup on Dec. 9.

“I don't know how many more playoff runs I have left,” Melia said. “I'm not checking myself out, but I also know I'm 37 and I can't play soccer forever. But I also think I enjoy them differently now. They're truly fun to me and there's not this overbearing pressure. These are the games I want to be in and enjoy playing in.

“We spend all year preparing for these few games, realistically. … We should go out there and be free, have fun and show what we're capable of.”

Photos are courtesy of USA Today and Sporting Kansas City.

Tim Melia clap hands