Thierry Henry is the marquee name, but according to the iconic French World Cup champion, Ryan Meara has been one of the most valuable players for the New York Red Bulls this year.
“Forget about me, forget about Rafa [Marquez], forget about Kenny [Cooper], forget about all those guys,” the Red Bulls captain said. “For me, they’ve been the key since the beginning of the season.”
Henry isn’t prone to hyperbole, so his praise of Meara, fellow rookie Connor Lade and Brandon Barklage speaks volumes.
“He’s been doing well,” Henry said of Meara. “He’s been saving us for a little while.”
That wasn’t supposed to be Meara’s role when the Red Bulls selected him 31st overall in the MLS SuperDraft in January. The former Fordham Prep star from Yonkers was going to provide cover in goal for whomever the club would sign as the starter. But Meara wowed the coaching staff from the first moment of preseason.
“Suddenly in the preseason with all the friendly games he just stepped up and I don’t think he made a mistake during the five or six preseason games. He looked very solid,” Red Bulls coach Hans Backe said. “He’s been great for us the whole season.”
Meara played in every minute of every game for the Red Bulls until a hip injury sidelined him from the club’s last two contests. In 18 starts, the 21-year-old has a 1.50 goals against average and three clean sheets. Meara is considered the frontrunner for the MLS Rookie of the Year award.
“It’s unusual,” Backe said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a young goalie be that confident, that composed, down to earth all the time, no spectacular things and just playing soccer.”
Compliments from Henry and Rookie of the Year talk is flattering for Meara, who helped guide Fordham Prep to the 2008 CHSAA Class AA intersectional title. But he’s taking it all in stride.
“One of the main things is to not look too far down the road, whether it’s a week from now, a month from now, next season,” Meara said. “If you just worry about the here and now and put your best foot forward, you set yourself up for success.”
Meara, who was also a standout at Fordham University, didn’t know what to expect on draft day. Being picked by the Red Bulls, though, was the ideal situation, for him and his family.
“It’s a team I grew up rooting for and I knew they needed a goalie. Once I heard my name called by them I was thrilled,” he said. “When I found out I got drafted here, I think my mom was the happiest. She didn’t really want to see me go.”
Meara said he grew up a fan of the Red Bulls, then known as the MetroStars and idolized Tim Howard, who has since played for Manchester United and Everton in England and is the first-choice keeper for the U.S. National Team.
Meara said he’s corresponded with Howard, who has offered him some advice and pointers on playing in MLS.
“When he was here with the MetroStars, I was probably in seventh or eighth grade and that’s when I was really starting to get into soccer,” Meara said. “I would always watch him and even now I still try to watch as many games, whether its Everton or the U.S. National Team.”
If he wasn’t drafted, Meara’s fallback plan was to join his father and uncle and follow in his grandfather’s footsteps in the FDNY and had planned to take the test in the spring. Instead, he was making his MLS debut in a 2-1 loss at FC Dallas.
Red Bulls goalkeeping coach Todd Hoffard said growing up in a firefighting family is a big reason why Meara isn’t fazed by his first year as a professional goalkeeper.
“I think if you can do that, you can do pretty much anything,” he said. “I seriously think a lot of that stems from that, his upbringing.”
Hoffard said he first saw Meara’s steely resolve in the preseason, when the Red Bulls were about to take on Mexican powerhouse Pumas UNAM at Chase Field in Phoenix, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“We walked out of the tunnel together, and I did it purposely, and he just looked up, looked all around and soaked it all in,” Hoffard said. “I was really keen on seeing how he was going to react to that…and he performed brilliantly. Nothing seemed to faze him.”
Meara’s transition hasn’t exactly been seamless – he said he was nervous that February night at Chase Field and said it took “about a week” to comprehend he now calls Henry and Marquez teammates.
He said the MLS preseason, which is nearly as long as an entire college season, helped him get acclimated.
“It was a big learning curve, but I think what helped me was the preseason is almost about two months long,” Meara said. “I think that helped me come to grips with how much faster the game is at this level.”
Despite his early success, Meara is still a goalkeeping neophyte. Hoffard said the prime for most in his position is 30 and some keepers play into their 40s. But Meara has the physical skills and mental makeup for what could be a long and successful career.
“He’s got great hands, he’s got very good feet, which is a priority in any good goalkeeper,” Hoffard said.
Just like Howard has been Meara’s mentor, so too is Meara to Fordham Prep players who now know the route from Murphy Field to Red Bull Arena is indeed possible.
“For them it shows that you can go to Fordham Prep, go on to college and if you work hard enough, you could play professionally and live out your dreams,” Meara said. “Hopefully it gives them a little inspiration.”
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