Laser focus and consistency key to Tim Melia's rise as an elite MLS goalkeeper

On the eve of the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia sat at his kitchen table with his wife Kristen and newborn daughter Rowan, eating his homemade Pappardelle pasta dish complete with chicken and sausage in a pink sauce. It was the same meal he ate before every single home game since joining Sporting KC in 2015.

For Melia, being a goalkeeper is about decision-making and consistency.

Yet the 31-year-old New York native has never viewed himself as superstitious.

“The more we get through this interview though, the more I’m thinking maybe you’re onto something,” Melia confessed.

For Melia, it was about a regimen: the concept that if things are in order, they will fall into place. And that is exactly what has happened, as this former League pool goalkeeper was named the 2017 Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year on Thursday.

Opinions aside, here are the facts: among goalkeepers with at least 15 regular-season appearances in 2017, Tim Melia led MLS with a 0.78 goals against average, 78.4 save percentage and 69.2-percent passing accuracy. Melia also ranked second in shutouts despite suffering a hamstring injury against Minnesota United FC on Oct. 7 that caused him to leave that match in the 59th minute and miss the final three games of the regular season as well as Sporting KC’s Knockout Round loss in Houston. The team went 0-2-2 during that four-match span.

For outsiders, it may seem like a remarkable rise, but for those who have followed his journey closely, it was about finding the opportunity.

Melia played club soccer on Long Island and chose to keep his talents local, signing for SUNY (State University of New York) Oneonta. After his sophomore season, the Oneonta soccer program was being transitioned to NCAA Division III, and Melia and the rest of his teammates were given the option to transfer without sitting out the following season. Melia moved to Division II Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, and that was when the idea of becoming a professional soccer player was presented to him.

“The coach at Lynn [Shaun Pendleton] told me that he would get me in front of the right people, and it was a time when the majority of MLS teams did their preseason in Florida,” Melia explained.

Not to mention, the goalkeeper coach at Lynn, Gwynne Williams split time between Lynn and working for the New England Revolution as the goalkeeper coach, so he was also well connected to the League.

Melia’s regimen applied to matchday as he considered all the things he could control. His outfit was one of them. Adhering to the Peter Vermes’ mantra that the Sporting KC Manager learned from his father, look good, play good. Melia dawned a sharp suit every match despite the team’s fun-loving theme nights throughout the 2017 season. On April 9, the team dressed like NBA star Russell Westbrook, but if you look closely at the photo below, you’ll see Melia, back left, repping his regular work uniform.

Chatting with Melia’s dad, Mike, offers a glimpse of what Tim might be like in 20 years: modest yet direct. When asked what role he played in Tim’s success, Mike replied, “Other than driving him all over the Eastern seaboard, nothing.” 

Tim doesn’t see it that way.

“My parents have been the biggest influences on my life,” he said. “And from a soccer perspective, my dad has always been the person I call after games. He will tell me when I play well but also tell me when I’m terrible. I laugh at it now. My dad actually used to warm me up. He got pretty good at drop kicking balls. He would stand five yards away from me and just kick balls at me as hard as he could.

“My dad also worked in the city, and I don’t ever remember him missing a game. At 2 o’clock on a Tuesday on Long Island, he was there,” Melia recalled. “They’ve supported me through getting released, switching teams, traveling all over the country, taking me to random soccer tournaments, state teams, select teams. They are the reason that I am doing this right now.”

But what has helped Melia flourish into a Goalkeeper of the Year winner?

“Fortitude,” Mike says.

Like Tim, a man of few words, but it’s undeniable that many of the greats rise to the top because of their determination. Sporting KC goalkeeper coach Alec Dufty attributes Melia’s success to his fearless nature and his confidence on the field and in himself.

“The best goalkeepers have a short memory because of the pressure they have on themselves in that position,” Dufty said.

Dufty, a former MLS goalkeeper himself, has played and coached at the highest level. But Tim is different than other goalkeepers he has trained.

“Tim is the only goalkeeper that I’ve worked with who wants me to score on him all the time. He gets mad if I make it easy. Any shooting drill we are doing at training, he always wants me to try to score and to make it as difficult as possible. Other guys want to push themselves, but I don’t think they want to push themselves quite to that point. And that comes down to the confidence in themselves.

“Other goalkeepers want to make saves at training because that builds up their confidence. But Tim wants to not quite get there to make the save because he knows that is going to make him better in the long run. I think that’s something that Tim has that I haven’t seen in a lot of goalkeepers.”

Ike Opara, the 2017 MLS Defender of the Year and Melia’s teammate, described his starting goalkeeper in one word: determined.

“His ability to play at an extremely high level consistently, and to pull off the big save when needed, was massive for our team,” Opara said. “He was unlike any other goalkeeper this season.”

Melia, of course, would say otherwise. He attributes his success to his teammates and his influencers along the way. Former Real Salt Lake head coach Jeff Cassar is one of them.

“Jeff broke me down. He spent so much time with me and I needed it. He helped me so much with my technique, and that is something I am so appreciative of. He took me from being a raw goalkeeper and turned me into a technical goalkeeper. I was just an athlete before I met Jeff.”

Cassar is extremely complimentary of Melia’s work ethic and mental toughness, having coached him from 2010-2011 as a Real Salt Lake assistant. But Cassar’s familiarity with Melia dated back to 2007 when he saw him play at Lynn. Fast-forward to present day, and Cassar looks back fondly on his two years spent with Melia.

“It was an absolute pleasure because you could see he had it and he wanted it,” Cassar said of Melia’s talent and motivation. “For a goalkeeper coach, you could see that he pushed the other goalkeepers to a new level, which obviously makes my job easier because it creates a competitive atmosphere. So just having Tim in training sessions with his desire, it gave me energy and it also gave the other goalkeepers energy.”

During his two seasons at RSL, Melia served as backup to MLS All-Star and U.S. international Nick Rimando. He also spent periods on loan at the Charleston Battery in 2010 and FC New York in 2011. A three-year spell at Chivas USA followed from 2012-2014, where Melia again held backup duties. He was a League pool goalkeeper for the latter half of 2014, where he first joined Sporting KC when Eric Kronberg and Andy Gruenebaum were sidelined with injuries.

Melia signed permanently for Sporting KC ahead of the 2015 campaign, making his debut for the club in a 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire on May 3. Having captured his first career win and shutout in MLS, Melia would never turn back.

“He knew he had the ability to be the starter, but he was behind arguably the best goalkeeper in MLS history, so what I really appreciate with Tim is his understanding and patience,” Cassar said of Melia’s stint at RSL. “We always talked about never losing that competitive drive but also being patient for your opportunity. And then when you do get your opportunity, grabbing it and holding onto it and not letting it go.

“You have to keep that competitive edge, but you also have to that team guy. You can definitely see Tim’s team rallying around him and loving how he got to where he is: being humble, working hard and seizing the opportunity and not letting it go.”

Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes has been another pivotal influencer since Melia arrived in Kansas City. After all, it was Vermes who gave Melia the chance that he had been working toward since he was playing youth soccer for the East Islip Red Raiders.

Melia joins club greats Tony Meola (2000) and Jimmy Nielsen (2012) as an MLS Goalkeeper of the Year recipient, making Sporting KC the only club to have three different Goalkeeper of the Year winners. Nielsen broke the regular-season club record with a 0.79 goals against average in 2012, but that mark was bested this year when Melia finished at 0.78.

Vermes was quick to pinpoint what each of the three award-winning goalkeepers had in common: “Hardworking, very self-confident team guys.”

Now that Melia has earned the biggest individual prize up for grabs among MLS goalkeepers, his sights remain set on what he views as far more important, team-oriented goals. The 2017 campaign was ultimately bittersweet, as Sporting KC lifted another U.S. Open Cup title before falling in the Knockout Round of the playoffs.

“On one hand yes, on the other no,” Melia said when asked if 2017 was a success. “Being knocked out in an early round playoff game is not good enough. It’s not what this club is set up for or deserves, and we as players need to do everything in our power to be playing our best soccer come late October.”

Melia also doesn’t have to think long about his personal objectives in 2018.

“I need to continue to learn and grow as a goalkeeper, and to reach my ultimate goal of winning an MLS Cup,” he said.