The spasms began in early July, centralized in the back of Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia. They emerged every few days, then every few hours and eventually every few minutes when he set foot on the practice field.
But after waiting six years for the opportunity to be a starter in Major League Soccer, Melia opted for a silent approach to the injury. He simply attempted to play through it.
“That was definitely the hardest part — when you’ve waited so long for your chance, you don’t want to come out of the lineup because of an injury,” Melia said. “You could come back and the opportunity could be gone.
“But at some point you have to realize you might hurt the team more than help them.”
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The scale tipped toward that assessment on July 30, a day before Sporting Kansas City was set to host Portland in a crucial Western Conference match. During a practice, Melia signaled for the trainer and then slowly departed the field.
The ensuing absence would linger for a month, allowing backup Alec Kann a string of six straight starts. Before the sixth, Melia was deemed ready to return, but Kann was given the nod.
Melia finally returned to MLS action on Sept. 18, but in a 2-2 home draw with the LA Galaxy, both shots he faced found the back of the net. He did not make a save, and Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes assessed his form as experiencing a drop-off.
“I think when you’re out, you don’t have form,” Vermes said. “You’re still trying to get your fitness back and trying to get back all those things you lose. He’s faced a little adversity because he gets injured, and then he has to climb back in. That (depends) on you getting back to your form.”
The form returned last weekend. Or at least a few glimpses of it. In a 2-1 win against San Jose, Melia made three saves, but one of them in particular caught the eye of his teammates and coaches.
In the opening minute of the second half, San Jose had an opportunity to take the lead, and its top scorer, Chris Wondolowski, deflected a shot that appeared destined for the side netting. The shot came from only four yards in front of him, but Melia was able to contort his body to get his right hand in the air and make the stop.
“Game after game, the more he plays, I think he’s going to get back to his routine,” Vermes said. “I think that save gives you that confidence-boost that sometimes you need as a player. It makes you feel like, ‘Hey, I’m getting back to who I am.’
“That was a really good step for him.”
In a sequence that lasted less than a single second, Melia provided optimism. After all, a potential re-emergence could come an opportune time for Sporting KC. Beyond the quest to solidify a playoff spot in the Western Conference, those within the team are also growing more confident about the potential to make a run.
Aiding that confidence is the recent performance from Melia, who showed resemblance to some big moments he had in 2015. While Melia has actually posted a slightly better goals-per-game average this season, he has faced significantly fewer shots. In fact, Sporting KC allows the fewest shots per game (9.2) in MLS this season.
“I think the results this season have been disappointing as a whole. I wish we were in a much better position,” Melia said. “But right now, we still control our own destiny in terms of getting into the playoffs. And knowing our talent, if we can get everyone rolling, and that always starts with our defense, then I think we’re as capable as anyone.”