On an evening in November 2014 in Washington, D.C., Tim Melia was contemplating his professional soccer future, wondering if maybe he had chosen the wrong career path. He was a pool goalkeeper, therefore available to any MLS team but apparently unwanted by them all. On this night, he had trekked 3,000 miles to suit up for a playoff game, only to be told he wouldn’t be needed.
A few months later, Sporting Kansas City provided Melia a long-awaited chance. He hasn’t wasted it.
An unlikely path to stardom delivered its biggest accomplishment yet on Thursday, when Melia was named the 2017 MLS goalkeeper of the year.
Melia posted the best goals-against average (0.78) in MLS history for players starting at least 30 matches. He led the league with a 78.4 save percentage and three saved penalty kicks and was second with 10 shutouts.
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“I think as you play games and you become older, you become more confident in yourself and your ability,” Melia said. “I really enjoyed the way we played this year. I’m looking forward to continuing along this path that we’re playing. It’s a style that I think benefits me.”
All he needed was that chance. Melia did not record a victory in his first five MLS seasons. He was a backup, and he served as the league’s emergency goalkeeper, an assignment he said he would have rejected had he been presented the option. It’s a story he has grown tired of telling, but that doesn’t subtract from its remarkable nature.
Three years later, a combination of players, technical staff personnel and media members selected him as the best in his craft in MLS. He garnered 50.3 percent of the total votes. Philadelphia Union keeper Andre Blake was second with 10.1 percent of the votes.
Melia, 31, is the third player in franchise history to win the award, joining Jimmy Nielsen (2012) and Tony Meola (2000). He was 16-7-12 across all competitions and also posted three shutouts in the team’s U.S. Open Cup championship run.
“If he doesn’t win (goalkeeper of the year), then the league has lost its mind,” Sporting KC defender Ike Opara said earlier this month.
Opara won the MLS defender of the year honor last week. He also has an atypical story. Injuries robbed him of early success.
For Melia, it was always a matter of opportunity. His athleticism is apparent in his playing style. It leads to acrobatic saves, including one against Portland early in the season that was a nominee for MLS save of the year.
But even more than the highlight plays, it’s arguably the consistency that makes Melia stand out most. Off-nights were non-existent in 2017. He never allowed more than two goals in a match.
His late-season and playoff absence left Sporting KC wondering what might have been. A hamstring injury sidelined Melia in the final month of the season, and the team did not win a match without him.
“That was tough. You never want to be injured, but obviously the end of the year, those games are the most fun. Those are the games you prepare all year for,” Melia said. “So it was very difficult.
“One of my big personal goals was being healthy for 34 games. It didn’t happen. Every year, you tinker with the recipe that you think you will be successful.”