Tim Melia is a few minutes into a conversation in a backroom booth at a Prairie Village restaurant. He is smart, his reflexes impeccable. Some of that is literally his job as Sporting Kansas City’s star goalkeeper, but some of it is also his nature.
He will react, turning defense into offense, whether that’s coming off his line to catch a cross or filtering through a line of questions early enough that he hasn’t even taken a sip of his water yet.
“Don’t mince words,” he said. “I’m not sensitive at all. Don’t worry about it.”
Well, OK. The questions:
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What the hell, man? How are you this good now, and nobody knew about it?
How, exactly, is it possible that one of the most important players on the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed was buried as a so-called “pool keeper” just four years ago, available to everybody and wanted by nobody?
This would be like an NFL team selecting a player of someone else’s practice squad, and then building one of the league’s best teams around him.
“I just think it’s funny,” Melia said. “You’re asking, ‘Were you good before? Or are you just better now?’”
The answer is a complicated mixture of the two but worth examining as Sporting prepares for the second leg of its conference semifinal against Real Salt Lake at 2 p.m. on Sunday. A win or scoreless draw would put Sporting into the conference final against Portland.
This is Sporting’s best team since the 2013 MLS Cup championship, and perhaps its best attack in franchise history. The team is the real-world version of coach Peter Vermes’ best visions, the result of a winding road of roster and schematic makeovers — a group that defends as a whole, attacks as a whole, and emphasizes organization and possession to score without a dominant scorer.
Melia is an irreplaceable part of this, last year’s MLS keeper of the year, essentially responsible for erasing a few mistakes in front of him each game.
Sports can be wild, but even by those standards Melia’s story sticks out. Sporting benefited, acquiring a cornerstone by accident.
“I would actually love to have an off-air conversation with Peter,” Melia said. “I’d be like, ‘When you brought me over, what were you actually thinking? Because you never thought you’d play me.’”
That’s not a slam. Melia thought the same, and now says that Sporting was his last shot at professional soccer. If it did not work here, he planned to retire. Maybe he’d work in finance. He started calling around, just to create a safety net. His wife convinced him to do one more move. Kansas City would make or break. Now, they have a toddler and a home in the suburbs.
Melia had spent time with two MLS clubs before Sporting. The first was Real Salt Lake, where he was behind Nick Rimando, still the starter there and the MLS career record holder for saves, shutouts, wins, and appearances.
“I wouldn’t have played me either,” Melia said.
He is extraordinarily confident, but more inwardly than boastful. That belief can be easy to miss, even now that he’s one of the league’s best keepers. So, when he was a backup? It must have been impossible to see. That’s why Melia thinks he surprised Salt Lake by asking out. He wanted to play, or at least develop in a different way.
He went to Chivas, a franchise that has since folded but even then had obvious and widely recognized problems. Melia enjoyed his time there. The coach was a former Salt Lake assistant, and believed in Melia, playing him regularly when they were out of the playoffs.
But even there Melia was stuck behind Dan Kennedy, who was an All-Star and finished second in the league’s keeper of the year voting in 2012, Melia’s first season with the club.
This would be a better story if Sporting brought Melia on with some cunning evaluation from a scout, but the truth is the club was desperate. Two keepers were injured. They just needed a body. Melia signed in August 2014, and did not play that season. He began the next year as the backup to Luis Marin, who Vermes targeted and signed.
Marin struggled, so Melia first played in May 2015. He believes the intention was for that to be a one-off, for Marin to get a mental break.
Sporting beat Chicago 1-0, then drew with DC United 1-1, and beat New England 4-2 at home. Melia was sure that Marin would come back after that, but as it turned out Marin left shortly after. By then, players and coaches alike were convinced Melia was the better keeper. Marin and the club agreed to terminate his contract, and he left to play in his native Chile.
“He was a guy I felt pretty confident I was better than,” Melia said. “But my opinion doesn’t mean anything.”
Nobody has played more matches than Melia since his arrival, and he’s been an integral part of the club’s evolution. When he came, he thought Marin’s advantage was with the ball at his feet.
But Sporting wasn’t quite ready to take advantage of that skill from a keeper. Melia has worked to improve that part of his game, and the growth has generally matched Sporting’s changing style. They have grown up together in that way.
Sports careers don’t often follow straight lines, but they also don’t often follow Melia’s path. Unwanted and unknown, then brought in as an emergency option, and now a crucial part of one of the league’s best teams.