Meara: The unlikeliest of Red Bulls heroes

Photos by Jim Hague/ Red Bulls’ rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara, a dead ringer for basketball superstar Larry Bird, has earned the improbable job of being the team’s starting goalkeeper.



Ryan Meara was already making plans for the rest of his life. A Fordham University degree in tow, the 21-year-old had just recently taken both the New York City and Yonkers fire department tests.

“My father was a fireman and so was my uncle,” Meara said. “It’s something I always wanted to do.”

But Meara also had another dream in mind.

“Yeah, that’s what I was going to do if soccer wasn’t a part of my life,” Meara said.

Incredibly, almost miraculously, soccer is a major part of the young man’s life these days, as he’s gone from a Fordham student to the starting goalkeeper for the New York Red Bulls almost overnight.

Meara was drafted as an afterthought by the Red Bulls in January’s MLS Draft and he worked his way through the preseason and some veteran competition to earn the starting nod to begin the 2012 campaign.

“It’s been a crazy couple of months,” Meara said. “I never thought this was possible. It seems like it was only a couple of minutes ago that I was watching these guys on television. I had to get over that pretty quickly. The whole process, from going to the (MLS) combine to the draft to the preseason, has been hectic and pretty unbelievable. I’m just trying to enjoy it all, take it all in.”

That’s the way Meara was last Thursday, as the Red Bulls held their annual media day festivities at Red Bull Arena, a few days prior to the team’s home opener Sunday.

In one corner of the room, Thierry Henry was holding court. In another, Rafa Marquez commanded attention, much like the way superstars in soccer do.

And there was young Meara, still young enough to be battling a case of acne and looking like a dead ringer for basketball superstar Larry Bird.

“I’ve been getting that one since I was about seven or eight years old,” Meara said. “Especially when I was playing basketball. I guess I do look like him.”

Meara grew up in Crestwood, N.Y. and was a big fan of the old MetroStars and now Red Bulls.

“It was something I always dreamed of, playing for this franchise,” Meara said. “I never expected it could actually happen. It was always my dream to play professional soccer. It’s even better to do it so close to home. I’m excited to be here and a little nervous.”

Meara hasn’t shown much nerve in his first three professional games, allowing a total of five goals in those games. He might have had a shutout Sunday, but Omar Cummings’ rocket shot sailed over Meara’s head in the 77th minute, in the Red Bulls’ 4-1 win over Colorado.

Still, it appears as if Meara has found a permanent home, manning the net for one of the most recognizable teams in the MLS.

“It was a crazy first couple of days, meeting guys I watched all the time and now I’m playing with them,” Meara said. “I didn’t want to look too far in front of me. I just wanted to work hard and maybe I’d get a chance to play. I just wanted to improve. I just had to be confident, have faith in my ability. Those are the keys to success. I never take anything for granted.”

Marquez, who was suspended for three games for throwing the ball at Landon Donovan and starting a brawl in last year’s MLS Cup playoffs, came back and vowed he was a changed man. He knows that he has to change his reputation this season, a reputation that was tarnished last year by poor play and even worse behavior, like badmouthing his teammates.

“I definitely have a different approach this year,” said Marquez, who has been moved up to midfield from defender where he played last year. “It’s a position that benefits me. I know that I have to demonstrate some things on the field to win the fans back. I’m not worried about that. What happened was in the past and there’s no need to talk about it. I have to be able to fit in better.”

The Red Bulls started off the season with two straight losses, but came back Sunday a more determined team.

“You could see in the warm-ups that everyone was more focused,” Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe said. “You could see the difference. We lost the first two games and we were under pressure to get a win. We need to perform well and dig in, because we have to be almost unbeatable here. That has to be the theory, not just talk.”

Superstar team captain Henry saw to that, scoring two goals and assisting on a score by Kenny Cooper.

Cooper also had two goals, giving the team a lethal combination up front while teenaged sensation Juan Agudelo recovers from knee surgery.

Cooper is just enjoying his time with Henry.

“He’s just amazing,” said Cooper, who was acquired in a January trade with Portland. “He can score. He creates. He has great field vision. He’s someone who has been a hero of mine and I’m privileged to be on the field with him. Anyone would love to be on the field with him or this incredibly talented team.”

The talented team is 1-2 now.

Things are better. And the young goalkeeper has a win under his belt. He can hold off taking any firefighter’s test for a while.

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