By Paul Gardner
The Red Bulls find themselves in unfamiliar territory, sitting on top the world. The world of the MLS Eastern Conference, I mean. Not that big a world, true, but the Red Bulls top-dog position is pretty impressive. As impressive as their new stadium. What has not been so impressive is the playing form of the team.
Saturday night’s 2-1 win over Dallas, frankly, made no sense at all. Not that soccer results have to make sense, but as Coach Hans Backe admitted. “I don’t see how we won this game, with all the chances Dallas had ...”
Quite. The Bulls’ defense has not been exactly water-tight. Once again goalkeeper Bouna Condoul was called on to make three or four very good saves -- while, down at the other end, Dallas keeper Dario Sala had little to do.
Even so ... there is good news to be found at the heart of the Bulls’ defense. The good news is called Tim Ream, the left-footed center back from St. Louis University picked up in the second round of this year’s draft.
Ream has already secured a starting position. He plays calmly and confidently, if not always perfectly. His performance against Dallas is worth studying. For a start, his direct opponent for most of the game was Jeff Cunningham -- quite probably the quickest and the wiliest forward in MLS. So it was going to be a difficult evening for Ream. So it proved. Cunningham outmaneuvered Ream on three occasions, any one of which could have resulted in a Dallas goal, but the Bulls escaped each time.
OK, so Ream has a lot to learn. After all, he’s a rookie, he’s young. Well, he’s actually 22, not all that young -- the blight of college has unquestionably held him back. Because there is a rare talent here. As his inexperience fades away -- he will surely learn quickly -- then we shall get a really good look at the immensely positive quality that Ream brings. And a very rare quality it is -- something that you feel must be an inborn, natural talent.
I’m talking about the mannerin which Ream plays his position, that of a central defender (growing up, he seems to have played most defensive and midfield positions, but says that center back is where he likes best to play). Backe says, “He looks like a European center back, very calm on the ball, very precise in the build up, never under pressure, he doesn’t get nervous ...” Apart from that bit about being “like a European,” that’s a pretty good summary. I’d say Ream is more like a South American center back, who, on the whole are better on the ball.
But Ream’s game, viewed as a whole, adds up to something more exciting than the sum of those parts. I can define the quality in one word: Ream is a player. This is rare among American center backs. They are usually chosen for their size and their ruggedness, they have to be good, or at least intimidating, in the air, they have to tackle hard. Anything beyond that is a bonus. But Ream has plenty beyond yet, particularly when it comes to distributing the ball.
Center backs, especially Europeans, are not known as great passers of the ball. The Dutch had, probably still have, the notion that when they play England, they try to make sure that it is the English center backs who play the ball out of defense -- because the pass will be lousy, and the Dutch will get the ball back.
Against Dallas, by my somewhat reliable count, Ream had 25 opportunities, with the ball at his feet, to find a teammate. He did so 19 times, sometimes under pressure. The other passes went astray, but even so you could see that they were intended as passes, there was intelligence behind them. Only once, and not until the 55th minute, did Ream make what one has come to expect from center backs, the standard “clearance,” whacking the ball hard, way downfield, to no one at all. Just that once. As for those super-powerful but aimless “clearing” headers so beloved of English center backs -- there were none to be seen.
This desire, and ability, to play constructively is quite unusual. So unusual that it actually worries some coaches, who prefer to see the ball belted away as quickly as possible.
That’s not for Ream, who looks for and usually finds a teammate. You have to wonder where that preference comes from. Ream says that he never had a favorite player, an idol on whom to model his play -- “I didn’t go to kick around in the backyard thinking ‘I’m this player, or that player ...’” Nor is there any soccer background from his family -- he has three brothers, but they’re all younger.
His talent, then really does seem to have arisen naturally, it is not an imitation of anything that he has seen in other players. It is, I think, a talent that would actually be better suited to playing in a deeper position, that of sweeper. I can’t comment on Ream’s tackling ability -- he does very little tackling, and that is partly a tribute to his positional sense, and his quick thinking -- interception rather than intervention.
Finally, there is the fact that Ream has never been selected to play for any U.S. national team at any level. At first that seems curious, but maybe it is perfectly logical. The evidence is that, certainly at the senior level, U.S. coaches prefer hard-nosed, no-nonsense defenders. A center back who is also a player, who wants to play his position skillfully and constructively, is more than likely to be viewed uneasily. For a national team player, Tim Ream, I think, is slightly ahead of his time.