Ryan Meara has had a topsy-turvy career with the New York Red Bulls to date. The 26-year-old was drafted by RBNY in 2012, immediately earned the starter's job, and put himself into Rookie of the Year reckoning and on to the radar of the Ireland national team. But the Yonkers-born 'keeper was knocked out of the season by New England Revolution's Kleyn Rowe. And by the end of 2012, RBNY had acquired the services of Luis Robles, who has played every MLS regular-season and playoff game the team has contested since his debut.
Meara, meanwhile, worked his way back from injury to earn a few US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League appearances in 2013 and 2014. There followed a year-long loan to New York City FC, but that got him no closer to regular starts in MLS. He returned to RBNY in 2016, and settled into a role as the captain and starting 'keeper of NYRB II - the club's reserve team. Meara back-stopped the majority of the II team's games during a record-setting year in USL that included the regular-season title and USL Cup.
In the off-season, Meara re-signed with the Red Bulls, committing to a "multi-year" deal that appeared to confirm he is the club's once and future starting goalkeeper. Last year's MLS back-up 'keeper for RBNY was Kyle Reynish, but he does not seem to be returning to the team. Meara is the clear next-in-line for the starting 'keeper's job at RBNY. Of course, he is backing up the MLS Ironman: the starting 'keeper who never stops.
Entering his sixth season, Meara faces the curious proposition of having been handed a promotion from last year - he's first off the bench if Robles needs a break - that probably means he won't see nearly as time on the field as he did in 2016. At RBNY's 2017 Media Day, he made clear he knows what to expect from the year ahead:
I think I won't be with the USL as much, besides maybe a couple of games here and there when the schedules work out.
Obviously I want to play as much as possible, just like anyone. It's tough when Luis is in front of you: he's been, for my money, the best goalkeeper in the league the past couple of years.
So I think the main thing is just to approach every day, you know: trying to get better, working hard, working on all the little details - so that when the chance does come to get a couple of games in the first team, I'll be ready. I won't be scrambling, I'll just slide right in.
Easier said than done, but Meara is not unaccustomed to this role. He played it, more or less, for RBNY in 2013 and 2014, as well as for NYCFC in 2015. And he stepped in for a couple of first-team starts in USOC and CCL in 2016: he knows this job well.
I think being number two goalkeeper on a team can be tough. You know, it's one of those positions when you can play every minute - or you don't play. So mentally, it can mess with you a bit. But you just try to try stay even-keel. Like I said: just ready for when it happens.
Meara also has a veteran's perspective of RBNY. He has been with the team longer than Robles; longer than anyone else on the roster now that Dax McCarty has been traded. NYRB II didn't exist when Meara joined the club, but he saw its benefits - and the benefits of other changes implemented at RBNY since 2015 - up close, and he speaks from experience when he compares it to what there was before. Thinking about the II team's phenomenal 2016, Meara credits both the particular group of players that united for the run to the USL Cup, and the bigger picture of RBNY's fully-integrated club structure.
I think part of the reason we had so much success with Red Bull II last year was because we all got along so well. It felt like the majority of the guys were local guys, so right off the bat we all hit it off. And I think you really saw how that translated over on the field.
And a lot of that, you have to give a lot of credit to Jesse [Marsch] and the staff for putting in a system of play that is the same for the first team, Red Bull II, down through the Academy. So you can go up and down the ladder: when you slide into your spot, you know exactly how you're supposed to play.
I think that's huge in the success of this club. I'm excited to see some of these young guys, like Tyler [Adams] and Derrick [Etienne], and Brandon Allen. Obviously, we've seen Alex Muyl and Sean Davis already make that jump to the first team. So, I think Red Bulls fans should be excited for it
The other major change Meara has witnessed at RBNY is the transition to a particular style of play, one that makes particular demands of goalkeepers:
The way our team plays - high press the other team and force them into mistakes and make life uncomfortable - a lot of the time, what ends up happening is they launch the ball long behind our backs. The 'keeper has to be sharp, coming off his line almost as like a sweeper type.
So I think that's one of Jesse's big talking points when he talks to us goalkeepers. It's one of those things where you have to be sharp. And I think the more you play in the system, the more second nature it becomes.