Playing a position that demands an experienced hand with well, experienced hands, rookie goalkeeper Ryan Meara has exceeded expectations and then some this season.
The 21-year-old Fordham University product has looked more like a grizzled veteran rather than a jittery first-year pro while backstopping the Red Bulls to a 9-4-3 record and a share of first place in MLS Eastern Conference entering this weekend's action.
"He has been so consistent, which is a surprise for me," Red Bulls coach Hans Backe said. "I am almost waiting for him to drop the ball and make some kind of mistake."
So far, Meara has not dropped the ball -- literally or figuratively -- as he has played every minute of every game. Meara's 16 games are already fourth on the league's all-time rookie list. Toronto FC's Stefan Frei is the all-time leader with 26 matches in 2009, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Meara has a 1.50 GAA and three shutouts.
Meara's performance certainly has not been lost on his teammates. "He doesn't show a lot of rookie," veteran central defender Heath Pearce said. "We've got a lot of other young guys and you see in different ways that youth in them. We see a well-rounded player who's still got drive and a huge upside. He's just fearless. He goes out there and holds himself to the level of everybody else. He doesn't hold himself as a rookie. He doesn't give himself any breaks."
That's because the 6-4, 185-pound Meara -- who has a striking resemblance to Larry Bird -- has shown a tough skin. After D.C. United surprisingly struck for the first goal some 30 seconds into the game last Saturday, Meara treated it as though it was water off a duck's back as the Red Bulls rallied for a 3-2 victory.
"You want to keep a clean sheet every game," he said. "Yeah, I take it a little personally. But at the same time, once they score and the game starts again, you have to put it behind you and focus on the rest of the game. If you get too angry about it or too down, it just affects the rest of your game."
Most young goalkeepers have to endure some sort of apprenticeship, playing behind an experienced keeper. Meara has not been afforded such a luxury. His competition for the No. 1 spot has been another rookie, 24-year-old Jeremy Vuolo.
"To tell you the truth, I really never thought of that," Meara said. "I know most teams have that kind of setup. Me and Jeremy push each other and compete every day. It has helped me tremendously."
Meara will be the first one to say he can get better. "I could improve everywhere, whether it's coming for crosses, distribution or communicating," he said. "I know one thing the team has talked to me about is getting into the gym and try to put on some extra muscle, which is what I have been doing. I think that will help me and help my presence in the box . . . "
His performance has not gone unnoticed. Last month, Meara was called up by Ireland's under-21 national team, but the Red Bulls blocked it. If he was fazed, Meara did not show it.
"It's an honor to get called in for something like that," he said. "My focus is 100 percent and winning games for the Red Bulls. That kind of stuff will take care of itself if I continue to play and play all right."