National Writer: Charles Boehm

USMNT & Fulham defender Tim Ream: I'll play "until I can't anymore"

Tim Ream USMNT

Facing two Concacaf Nations League matches vs. Grenada and El Salvador, the full US men’s national team will gather next week for the first time since their run to the Round of 16 at the FIFA 2022 World Cup.

And their “Grandpa,” to use injured captain Tyler Adams’ tongue-in-cheek tag, will still be right in the mix.

That would be Tim Ream, the veteran center back who was such a revelation in Qatar and has remained in the form of his life at Fulham FC in the months since, earning a contract extension from the London club that will keep him at Craven Cottage until at least the summer of 2024, when he’ll be nearly 37 years young.

He wouldn’t mind still being in the USMNT picture at that point, either. Even with an interim head coach, Anthony Hudson, in charge and the program in an awkward state of flux after controversy engulfed it after the World Cup, there are Nations League and Gold Cup trophies to defend this summer.

“Whoever you want to put in charge, we have to go and win games and we have to perform,” Ream told in a 1-on-1 conversation this week. “We can't look at what's going on or worry about what's going on off the field, because we don't affect that. That's not our area of expertise. That's not in our job description.

“That's the beauty for us. We get to play the game, while everyone else gets to worry about the business side and the hirings and firings and what have you.”

No slowing down

After more than a year away from the USMNT, injuries to Miles Robinson and Chris Richards opened the door for Ream to earn a dramatic return to the fold at the World Cup. He seized that opportunity with quiet leadership and a series of excellent displays, and doesn’t plan to let go of it until someone, be it a coach or a competitor for his starting role, wrenches it from his grasp.

“If someone isn't going to take my spot, then I'm going to keep performing,” said Ream. “Someone's going to have to physically take it from me, or they're going to have to physically give it to someone else and tell me that I'm not the guy anymore. And that's fine, that time will come, for sure. It always does. I'm not bigger than the game. I'm not going to play forever and neither is anybody else.

“I'm of the mind that I'm going to keep going until I can't anymore. And at that point, then it's time to just hang them up completely.”

Ream’s commitment to living in the present is understandable. While many observers fretted about players suffering a hangover from the tournament’s unprecedented autumn schedule and some European leagues’ rapid return to action afterwards, he moved from strength to strength and has played all but two minutes of Fulham’s surprisingly successful Premier League campaign to date.

Whether that’s defying Father Time or harnessing him is in the eye of the beholder.

“Things seem in slow motion and you just see everything differently, in such a better way. And that's kind of where I'm at – and obviously that can change very quickly,” explained Ream, a cerebral defender and incisive passer since his early MLS days at New York Red Bulls, one who has honed that skill set even further in England.

“I've become a lot more efficient in the way that I work, a lot more efficient in the way that I read the game, a lot more efficient in seeing patterns before they're happening. Instead of reacting, I'm already there, or a step ahead or seeing things a step or two ahead, and knowing where I need to be. So I think it's a matter of almost freeing up and then not thinking, and just going on instinct more than anything.”

Tim Ream USMNT
Tim Ream celebrates the USMNT's World Cup win over Iran.

St. Louis return?

Both Ream and his wife Kristen Sapienza, a standout player at St. Louis University just like him, are also natives of MLS’s newest market and have watched in awe from afar as expansion club St. Louis CITY SC charmed the city.

“We call it the St. Louis soccer mafia,” he joked. “It’s a massively interconnected web of players, families, people … finally culminating in having a first-team, professional MLS club for families and people that I grew up with, and now younger generations to grow up watching and aspiring to be, and be able to go and see them on a weekly basis, it’s pretty cool.”

But despite deep family roots and regular vacation trips back to the Gateway City, he’s not entertaining thoughts of an MLS swan song in his hometown.

“I've maintained through, up to now that if I can, I'm going to retire over here. I'm going to play as long as I possibly can and keep pushing myself to the absolute limit to continue my career here,” he said. “There's a lot of things that I feel like I want to do after I finish playing, which, for me, the way I feel, the way I'm playing, is still probably three, four or five years down the line. And so I'm not really thinking about where am I going to settle when it's all said and done.”

USMNT camaraderie

With Adams missing out on this month’s camp due to a hamstring strain suffered on club duty with Leeds United, Ream’s veteran perspective figures to be as useful as ever for the USMNT. There’s a hint of that in his take on the discourse that erupted around one of the team’s youngest players, Gio Reyna, and the revelations surrounding familial events at the World Cup.

“We handled that whole situation at the World Cup,” said Ream, who will fly to Orlando to join the national team camp on Monday, after Fulham’s massive FA Cup quarterfinal vs. Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday. “I reached out to a few guys, Gio included, just to kind of check in on everyone, to make sure that everyone's heads were on right and thinking about Nations League and what this new cycle means – fully not knowing whether I'm going to be involved or not.

“There are things within the team setting that, as a captain of a club but as part of a [USMNT] leadership group, we have to deal with. That is just the nature of a team sport. And so that's what we'll do and we'll move past it. We are a close-knit group, no matter what anybody says. Everybody is very, very close, everybody gets on really, really well. And I think guys are looking forward to getting back on the bike and starting the new cycle.”