Update (July 13, 2016)
This story originally ran on May 5, 2016. Jake Gleeson and the Timbers are in action twice this week, on Wednesday against the Montreal Impact (10:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE) and then on Sunday in a Cascadia Cup showdown against the Seattle Sounders (3 pm ET; FOX in the US, MLS LIVE in Canada).
Original Text (May 5, 2016)
The life of a No. 2 goalkeeper can mean staying out of the spotlight and staying behind the scenes. That is, until a breakout best-of-the-week performance when the No. 1 goalkeeper is injured.
That’s the story these days for New Zealand international Jake Gleeson.
He has been the Portland Timbers’ backup since 2011, having received just five caps for the team heading into this season. But starter Adam Kwarasey suffered a torn ligament on April 16 that would take at least a month to heal – and Gleeson was tapped for the most consistent first-team action he’s seen in years.
Last weekend, he made four spectacular saves en route to a 2-1 win over Toronto FC, enough to be named to the MLS Team of the Week. Some fans have gone so far as to rate him the best backup goalkeeper in the league.
Now, the spotlight is on Gleeson. MLSSoccer.com caught up with the young goalkeeper to find 10 things to know:
If Gleeson, 25, hadn’t pursued a career in soccer, he is sure that these days he’d instead be playing cricket, probably as a bowler, cricket’s equivalent to a pitcher in baseball. Although cricket is a fringe sport in the US, it’s considered the most popular sport in Gleeson’s native New Zealand.
"Growing up, I played cricket -- that was probably my favorite sport,” Gleeson said. “I was a bowler primarily, though I could bat as well. But that that was my No. 1 sport growing up. I wanted to be a Black Cap.”
The Black Caps is the nickname for New Zealand's national cricket team, a moniker reminiscent of the name for the country's national soccer team, the All Whites. Speaking of which...
National team dreams
Gleeson has represented the All Whites at the U-17, U-20, U-23 and senior level, his most recent call-up coming in November 2014.
Though it appears coach Anthony Hudson has other goalkeepers ahead of Gleeson in the depth chart, Gleeson is hopeful more minutes with the Timbers will catch his attention.
“Definitely, it's on my radar. I hope to be brought in and playing with them and all that stuff,” Gleeson said of the national team. “But you just have to be patient with it too and I think if I play games over here, it puts me in a good position.”
A return without warning
Gleeson’s time with the Timbers’ MLS side had been limited up until this latest spell of playing time while Kwarasey recovers. He had four caps in 2011 and then didn’t return to action again until last year in a crucial playoff match against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
After nearly four years of no time with the Timbers first team, being asked to step in during playoffs would be pressure enough -- but Gleeson wasn’t given a heads up about it either. He didn’t know Kwarasey would be out sick with the flu until he was walking up the stairs into Providence Park for the game.
He went on to record a clean sheet with three saves.
“It’s just one of those things where you always have to be ready,” Gleeson has said. “This is what you train every day for, for the opportunity to go out and play.”
“It doesn’t make me nervous. It makes me really excited,” he said. “I get happy and I’m ready to go.”
His latest first-team stint started under similar circumstances -- Kwarasey jammed his finger into the ground early in the second half of a home game and with no warning, Gleeson was thrown onto the pitch and held San Jose off for a 3-1 win.
Knowing he’s got it good
Though Gleeson has found minutes with T2, the Timbers’ second team, and on loan with the Sacramento Republic in the USL, some players, it seems, are in constant search of first-team minutes, going wherever they think they might get them. Not Gleeson -- his role as the go-to No. 2 in Portland since 2011 is serving him well.
“The environment here is second to none,” Gleeson said. “The fans, the environment, the team, the city, it's all so good that it would be hard to leave.”
So how did Gleeson become a goalkeeper, or get into soccer at all for that matter? It was a bit of an accident.
Soccer’s place in the mainstream of New Zealand is overshadowed by popular sports like cricket, rugby and netball, and Gleeson grew up as a cricket and rugby player. One day, however, he accompanied his best friend to the friend’s soccer scrimmage and played with a rugby ball along the sidelines to pass the time.
“They were one player short. They were like, ‘Do you just want to jump in goal and make up some numbers?’ So I jumped in and just flew myself about,” Gleeson’s story goes. “I made a decent impression I guess. I was a pretty crazy little kid.”
When the team’s starting goalkeeper got injured weeks later, Gleeson was asked to take the spot. And he’s been playing soccer as a goalkeeper ever since.
Baked beans and bed time
When it comes to preparing for game day, every athlete is different. Some have rigid rituals and superstitions, but usually all have at least something of a routine.
For Gleeson, eating baked beans before the match is a “pretty standard” part of his game days, he said, along with “a bit of a nap in the afternoon if it’s a night game.”
The comforts of home
Gleeson grew up in Palmerston North, New Zealand, an island city with a population just north of 80,000. He went on trial for Manchester United – at 17, he thought the offer for the trial was a joke at first -- as well as with Everton, neither of which panned out. The Seattle Sounders offered a trial too, but he ultimately moved from New Zealand to join the Portland Timbers.
These days, Portland feels like home for Gleeson, who cites the friendly people and good food as his favorite things about the Rose City. But the US, he admits, has a different vibe than his motherland of New Zealand.
“To be honest, I think the New Zealand attitude is a bit different,” he said. “Everyone's really, really easy-going down in New Zealand.”
Rooting for The Reds
Gleeson may have hung up his cricket bat in exchange for a pair of soccer gloves when it comes to his career, but he’s still a cricket fan through and through.
His favorite sports team to follow and support is New Zealand’s Black Caps. When it comes to soccer, he’s a longtime supporter of The Reds -- Premier League giants Liverpool FC.
“I was a bit of a Liverpool fan growing up,” he said. “I just like to watch them play.”
Nicknamed no more
When Gleeson first arrived in Portland, his teammates had taken to calling him “Snake” as a nickname. There was no deep meaning behind the name -- it just happened to rhyme with Jake.
But after a good run, the Snake nickname is dead.
“I think that's gone now,” Gleeson said, laughing. “The first couple years they would call me Snake but now it’s gone.”
It appears Portland fans can skip any “Jake the Snake” two-stick banner ideas they may have had for upcoming games.
The turning point
All it takes sometimes is for someone to believe in you. As a teenager, Gleeson found that in his goalkeeper coach, who sparked a change that saw Gleeson take soccer from a hobby to a serious pursuit.
“He pulled me aside one day and said, ‘I want you to start trying. I want you to come work with me because I think you can do this,’” Gleeson has recalled. “I said, ‘If you really believe in me, I'll work as hard as you want me to work.’”
It didn’t take long after that for Gleeson to make the New Zealand U-17 national team and represent them at the U-17 World Cup in South Korea.
“He really changed my perception of what I could do,” Gleeson said of his former coach.