On a late Friday night last November, Tim Melia sat in his Los Angeles home, enjoying the beginning of an MLS offseason, when his phone rang. A D.C. United coach was on the other line, and before long, he requested Melia join the team for its playoff match the following day against New York.
Under contract with MLS as its in-case-of-emergency goalkeeper, Melia scrambled to pack an overnight bag, drove to the airport and boarded a red-eye flight destined for the opposite end of the country.
His status as an MLS pool goalkeeper — an assignment he would have rejected had he owned the option — allowed any team in the league to demand his services. It was the equivalent of the all-time quarterback in a backyard football game.
With one exception: He never got to play.
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By the time Melia reached Washington, D.C., early on the Saturday morning, a team official greeted him with a less-than-warm welcome.
On second thought, we don’t need you after all. But here’s a free ticket to the game.
On a cold night on the East Coast, Melia sat in the stands to watch a playoff match he didn’t care much about, then traveled nearly 3,000 miles to return home.
“That,” he said, shaking his head, “was a rough 24 hours.”
Such is the life of a pool goalkeeper.
Melia spent time with four clubs last season in a search for professional stability. Instead, he bounced around from locker room to locker room, none of them offering a permanent residence.
Until he found one in Kansas City.
He’s clinging to it, too.
After unseating Luis Marin as the No. 1 goalkeeper on Sporting Kansas City’s depth chart last month, Melia has started the past five matches. Over that time, he’s posted as many shutouts as goals he’s conceded (three).
He hasn’t lost once.
“A savior,” forward Dom Dwyer said.
“Unbelievable,” captain Matt Besler said.
“The Hulk,” coach Peter Vermes said.
Melia’s play has led many outside the organization — and even some within it — to a logical question: Where did this come from?
How does a man go from five winless MLS seasons to playing at an All-Star level?
It’s actually quite simple, he says.
“This is the first time anyone has given me the opportunity,” he said.
Melia never appeared in a match during his first two MLS seasons, which he spent with Real Salt Lake, and he started only 10 games over three seasons on dreadful Chivas USA teams.
The league forced him into the pool goalkeeper role for the last half of 2014, which he didn’t realize was part of his MLS contract, and although he received call-ups from Sporting KC, FC Dallas and D.C. United, he never stepped onto the field.
As the season wore on, he contemplated retirement.
“I think you’re a little naïve if you don’t have that thought,” Melia said.
Add to that, it’s not as if clubs were lining up for his services when he reached free agency last offseason. The only on-paper offer came from Sporting KC, and while Melia planned to push for the starting job, Vermes made it clear his offseason international signing, Marin, would have the first crack.
That, however, was short-lived.
Marin started the first eight matches of the season, but he struggled to find consistency and fell into a slump that reached its low point when he allowed four goals in a 4-4 draw in Houston.
As a result, Melia was promised a start. Just one. It came against the Chicago Fire on a May 3.
His teammates say he garnered their support long before that. During daily scrimmage drills, players had begun requesting to play on Melia’s team.
“I think, a lot of times, when you see guys who have bounced around, in particular pool goalkeepers, it’s hard for them to fit in right away and buy into the team,” Besler said. “His willingness to be a part of the team was there from day one this year.”
Melia is the last man standing now. Marin permanently departed the team last week and returned home to Chile to address a family issue. Melia, of course, showed no signs of relinquishing the job anyway.
Melia’s aggressive style has fit in Sporting KC’s system. He has faced only 2.2 shots per game — as compared to the 3.8 per game Marin had faced — but that low number is partially a product of his ability to come off the line and negate scoring opportunities before they develop.
“When he makes a decision, he’s going. And I like that about him,” Vermes said. “Sometimes you’re gonna make mistakes, but I like that you’re not afraid to make a decision, and he’s one of those guys.”
The mental aspect of his game has helped lead to the best stretch of his career — or perhaps the lone one worth remembering.
Not that he’s thinking of it that way.
Melia has a strikingly level-headed, even-keel attitude about the past month, along with the long, bumpy five seasons that preceded it. He didn’t bother to celebrate his first MLS victory against Chicago. He doesn’t plan to honor any future ones, either.
“The minute you start thinking about stuff like that is when you get comfortable with what you have,” he said. “It can all be gone so quickly.