During preseason, if anyone had bet New York Red Bulls goalkeeping coach Todd Hoffard that Ryan Meara would be starting come June, Hoffard wouldn’t have wagered much.
Hoffard had liked everything he’d seen from the team’s second-round pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft – reflexes, confidence to make quick decisions coming off his line and work ethic – but wasn’t sure how well the rookie ‘keeper would handle the pressures of a high-profile position in one of the league’s most demanding markets.
After all, goalkeepers often don’t hit their prime until their late 20s, and the 21-year-old kid from Yonkers, N.Y., was yet to face whipped-in crosses delivered by the likes of David Beckham and Brad Davis.
It wasn’t until Hoffard asked the team’s veteran players their impressions of the 6-foot-4 Larry Bird look-alike that he became convinced Meara had an immediate future as the club’s No. 1.
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“Everyone I talked to had very, very positive feedback that the comfort level was there,” Hoffard recalled. “[Ryan] is a very good, solid goalkeeper, but I’m not sure if I’d have gone out on that limb at the time. Of course, now he has proven week in and week out that this is his job.”
As midfielder Dax McCarty tells it, Hoffard may have had more of an idea of Meara’s potential than he’d liked to admit.
“He was beaming over the kid,” said McCarty, who mentioned that he too had taken notice of Meara within a couple of weeks of training camp in Mexico. “Ryan’s very mature, his fundamentals are very, very good and he’s a great shot-stopper. I knew they wouldn’t bring in any other goalkeepers.
“We all have the confidence in the world in him and he is rewarding that faith with some outstanding performances," McCarty added. "Lets hope he keeps that up throughout the year, because he’s going to be huge for us.”
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Meara has routinely come up big for a team that has finally found a way to keep opposing offenses off the score sheet. Just like last year, New York are among the league leaders in goals scored. Unlike last year, however – more recently, unlike earlier this season when the Red Bulls gave up 14 goals in the opening seven games – the defense has tightened as a unit and stopped giving up soft goals.
Despite lengthy absences from veterans Rafa Márquez and new signing Wilman Conde, a previously unproven group of rookies and journeymen recorded three consecutive shutouts during a five-game win streak that vaulted the club into second place in the Eastern Conference.
Though Meara has received much acclaim for the defense’s recent success, he was quick to point out it goes much deeper than just the play of a few individuals.
“It isn’t just the backline,” Meara said. “As a team, we’ve picked up our defending. After D.C. scored four on us, we felt embarrassed, especially because it was against one of our rivals. We’ve come together as a team. The back four have done great, but it’s more about the whole team chipping in to defend.”
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Swedish center back Markus Holgersson, who has started every league match in front of Meara, attributes the reversal of fortune to the simple fact that it took time for a group of young and relatively inexperienced defenders to gel. Twelve members of the current team, eight of whom are younger than 26, are in their first season with the club.
“The communication is much better now,” said Holgersson, who himself is in his first MLS season after transferring from Swedish club Helsingborg. “And that’s a big point. It’s important because in the beginning, we always tried to talk, but we didn’t listen in the same way. We knew we didn’t have much experience, but we are tight and we all helped each other in different ways. Now that the big stars came back, we are continuing the same.”
Now that Meara has tasted success, he doesn’t plan on going anywhere.
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Upon his arrival to preseason, though he only worried about making a good impression, it was obvious that opportunity was there for the taking. New York unloaded both veteran 'keepers from last season’s team, so the position was vacant and available for the two young goalkeepers on the current roster, Meara and Jeremy Vuolo.
“When I showed up for first day of preseason, [thinking about starting] was so far from my mind,” Meara said. “I wanted to come in and compete for a spot but the main thing was to train hard everyday and get to know the guys and the staff.
“I’m just taking it one game at a time and trying to get better everyday. I want to play every game I can and when that happens only good things can happen.”
Hoffard cannot get enough of that attitude and believes it has been the key to Meara’s success, which a few weeks ago included a call up to the Republic of Ireland’s Under-21s (Meara’s grandparents on his mother’s side are from Ireland). Meara declined, however, in order to concentrate on solidifying his day job for a round of upcoming friendlies.
“He said to me that he knew at some point, there could be another goalkeeper coming in because he’s young and the club could possibly look to bring in a veteran down the line,” Hoffard said. “But he said that he’s had a taste of it and doesn’t want to give it up. He works his socks off to keep it up. The biggest thing for any coach is being with someone who wants to compete and battle like he does.”