The New York Red Bulls qualified for the semifinals of the US Open Cup for just the fifth time in their history - and the first time since their 2003 run to the Cup final - with a 1-0 win over New England Revolution on July 13, 2017.
It was an against-the-odds win. The Red Bulls don't often win away in New England, and had seemed to have used up their luck in that regard with a 3-2 win at Gillette Stadium just a week earlier. Further, the squad has been ravaged by a combination of international call-ups for Gold Cup and injuries: the back line for the match comprised Aaron Long, Sal Zizzo, Connor Lade, and Tyler Adams - a center back, two right backs and a d-mid, under normal circumstances.
In goal, head coach Jesse Marsch kept faith with Ryan Meara: one of the squad's longest-tenured players, but unquestionably the back-up to RBNY's record-setting 'keeper Luis Robles.
Meara and the makeshift defense repaid their coach's faith with a clean sheet, providing the platform for Bradley Wright-Phillips' late winner.
After the heroic 1-0 win under some of the more difficult circumstances of the season to date (and it has been a generally difficult season for RBNY), Meara was justly proud of the work his teammates put in.
'We knew it was going to be a battle, and I think we were really up for it tonight," he told reporters. "It wasn't the prettiest game or the best soccer played, but I think we out-battled them - and that's what got us the win."
From the moment the lineup was announced there was pressure on the back line. The improvised defense was not inexperienced: Zizzo and Long are regular starters at the back; Lade played center back in college and has made positional flexibility the hallmark of his career as a pro; Adams has played full back in the past, most recently in a handful of appearances for NYRB II last season. Nonetheless, it was some distance from the ideal defense for a must-win away-day, and few would have predicted this would be a match ultimately settled by the visitors' ability to keep the Revs off the board.
Meara praised his back line after the match:
I think that's one of our strong points as a team: the way we play and the system that Jesse and the staff have for us. It helps in having guys have to switch to other positions - they just step in and do the job. More than anything, it's about our mentality: the way we play, the pressing, just being overall a tough team to play against. I think Jesse does a great job instilling that in us.
I think a night like tonight shows perfectly who we are as a team. We were down a couple of starters, especially at the back, and I think it was one of our best games defensively of the year.
In the end, the Revs were limited to just three shots on target; RBNY had twice as many shots on goal (six) and in total (14 to the Revs' seven).
It was a hard-fought win in many ways, in keeping with the Red Bulls' current form. As Bradley Wright-Phillips pointed out after the game, the team has won five of its last six games. One of those "wins" was via penalty shoot-out in the last round of USOC; another was the 3-2 victory over the Revs on July 5 - settled by a late goal from late substitute Gonzalo Veron. Wins haven't come easily in this run, or in general for RBNY this season. But the team has been winning, and the latest success brings an all-too-rare visit to the final four of USOC.
It also brought Ryan Meara one of the very few RBNY goalkeeping records not owned by Luis Robles.
Meara hasn't been the team's starting 'keeper since the first half of his rookie season in 2012, but effort has been made to give him minutes on the field - mostly by handing him the gloves for tournament play, which means he has seen quite a lot of USOC in his time with RBNY.
"A lot" of USOC for RBNY is relative: this is a team that doesn't frequently trouble the latter rounds of the competition. But Meara's appearance against the Revs was his ninth for the Red Bulls in US Open Cup - and nine appearances is the most for RBNY by a goalkeeper...ever (per MetroFanatic's impeccable archive of team statistics).
Meara also holds the club record for minutes played by a 'keeper for RBNY in USOC (870). And the win and clean sheet against the Revs brought him level with Tony Meola's record for wins (five) and shutouts (four) in the tournament for the Red Bulls (and MetroStars).
There aren't many reasons to mention Meara and Meola in the same sentence, but "winningest goalkeepers in USOC for RBNY" is a pretty good one.