It’s another night of Tim Ream’s mild-mannered adolescence in suburban St. Louis, and the high school party has just been busted up by the cops. Again. It’s nothing novel. Just a scene replicated over and over again in every town: athletes, cheerleaders, academics, all in the same boat when their parents answer that incriminating phone call after midnight.
But no one’s calling the Ream household. That’s because Tim—the eldest of five kids, plus 15 cousins on his mother’s side alone—is actually shuttling his classmates home from the party, nearly an hour’s worth of round-trips after the cops shut down the night.
Did Ream ever do anything bad in high school? Nope. Not that he can remember, anyway. He was a self-described “prototypical jock” in the quintessential Midwestern town, a soccer star at a Roman Catholic high school who dreamed one day of leaving home but never planned to stray for long.
He certainly never went far—at first. As a freshman at nearby Saint Louis University he visited home so often that by the time he’d acclimated to college life as an upperclassmen, his mother was calling him almost daily wondering why she hadn’t seen him in so long.
But he did finally let loose during his playing days with the Billikens, when he met his girlfriend – Saint Louis women’s soccer player and area native Kristen Sapienza, now his fiancée – and steadily built his reputation as a reliable pro prospect who the New York Red Bulls eventually took with the 18th overall pick in the SuperDraft in January.
But predictably, Ream wasn’t at the draft in Philadelphia when his name was called. Instead he watched on television with his family at a sports bar across the street from SLU. A few teammates ditched class and Sapienza invited some of her friends, but there was remarkably little to-do surrounding the moment that officially launched one of the best pro prospects in recent league history.
Now Ream and Sapienza make their home in Hoboken, N.J., just across the Hudson River from the heart of Manhattan. It’s a strange juxtaposition: the All-American boy in the shadow of Gotham, somehow trying to remain the league’s most wonderfully ordinary person while playing in perhaps the most extraordinary city in the world.
“I’ve only been out in the city three or four times since I’ve been here,” said Ream, his subtle Midwestern accent peaking through. “I’ve never been one of those guys who parties or gets out-of-control crazy … It’s not who I am, and not how I want to be.”
If He Can Make It There
Here’s the point in the story when most sports fans yawn. We’ve become so accustomed to the gluttonous self-adulation of modern day athletes that an introvert or homebody like Ream is practically an anomaly, always the Designated Driver while the others indulge until the party gets busted up.
And yet, Ream is as much a talking point this year as any young player in American soccer. He’s a Rookie of the Year candidate. He’s being mentioned as a possible for the US team in Brazil in 2014. And he’s quietly become the most promising young defensive talent in MLS today, big market or small, whether you find him interesting or not.
“He’s just not a flashy player. But is he underrated, or unnoticed? Not by us,” said Rutgers coach Dan Donigan, who coached Ream at Saint Louis. “We knew, without a doubt, he was the kind of guy we could lean on. He was a major, major reason we had success while he was here.”
Ream has played a major part in the Red Bulls’ rebirth this season too. Scouts knew of his talent, but he’s also proven remarkably durable during his rookie year, joining Colorado’s Drew Moor as the only other field player to log every minute of the regular season thus far. If he continues on that trend, he’ll join a sparse list of players not to miss a minute of their entire rookie season, including New England’s Michael Parkhurst in 2005.
Parkhurst won the Rookie of the Year that year, and Ream could very well follow suit. He’s running neck and neck in the race against Philadelphia’s Danny Mwanga and D.C. United’s Andy Najar, looking to become the first New York player to win the award since Rodrigo Faria in 2001.
Is he overhyped? Of course. Ream knows it, and those closest to him are wary of it. Any player who gets compared in the press to Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand (as Red Bulls coach Hans Backe did in March) or gets publicly praised by the US National Team coach (as Bob Bradley did last month) is due for an unhealthy injection of ego.
“He definitely should be at the top of the list as the future of soccer in this country…” RBNY teammate Mike Petke said. “I remember the first month or two of the season when I was telling everyone who would listen to me, ‘yes, he is the real deal. He’s unbelievable, but we have to let him breathe and grow.’”
Despite all the accolades, teams scrambled to scoop up other players long before they considered Ream in January. He was nowhere near as regarded as San Jose’s Ike Opara, and even the Red Bulls opted to use their first-round picks on midfielders Tony Tchani and Austin Da Luz, two players who’ve made only a fraction of the impact Ream has this season (though Tchani has become a vital part of the midfield in the second half of the year).
There’s no one reason teams passed on Ream. Not a great one, anyway. What you see with Ream is largely what you get: savvy and smart on the ball, a tremendous distributor out of the back and as fundamentally sound as they come for a 22-year-old.
But there’s no flash. He’s less than imposing at 6-foot-1. He packed on 20 pounds in college, but he could use a few more. He serves a great ball, but the odds are better that he’ll clear the game-winner off the line than actually put it in the opposite net.
Still, ask any general manager or technical director in the league what they think of Ream and you’re likely to hear the same thing: it ain’t sexy, but it’s steady.
“He’s a playmaker from the back, which you don’t see a lot of these types of guys, playing four years of and then being able to step right into the league,” said one Eastern Conference technical director. “He’s certainly a composed young man.”
“He’s just not a flashy player, the guy who’s going to come flying through the box and finish it up in the air,” Donigan said. “He’s just not that type of player. But he’s level-headed and modest, the kind of guy you root for and rely on. That’s why he’s able to enjoy the success he’s had.”
Ream has heard it all before. He doesn’t necessarily know where it comes from—maybe it’s that Midwestern work ethic, maybe it’s due to a grounded middle-class family—but he knows it’s one of his keys to success. His ability to embrace both the highs and lows with modesty and humility is perhaps his greatest calling card so far, and a sign that level-headed maturity can certainly outweigh flash or flair.
In fact, most GMs would actually prefer it.
“He’s done well,” one Western Conference technical director said. “The mistakes he’s made, they don’t live with him.”
Luckily, those mistakes are few. He admits that he played a part in at least three goals during a 4-0 loss to the Earthquakes in early May, and then followed later that month by clumsily rocketing a header into his own net during a 3-2 loss to the New England Revolution.
“That never happened to me in high school or college,” Ream said. “But it was a fluke, it happens. I wasn’t the first guy to score an own-goal and I won’t be the last, so why dwell on it?”
“People make a mistake by blowing kids up because they’ve had a good rookie season, or even a portion of the season,” Donigan said. “He makes mistakes. He’s cost New York some goals this year, and he knows that. We see a lot of young kids coming up who get built up in the next big thing, and they falter. Tim knows he has to have longevity in his career.”
The Family Guy
Ream learned his life’s lessons largely from his parents, but it was his job as a role model to his younger siblings that put him on the path to where he is now. The responsibility kept him out of trouble and inescapably kept him on the straight and narrow, but he never regrets the choices he made as an introverted kid who always felt the need to put family first.
“Not at all,” Ream said. “You set a standard, and you want your younger brothers and sisters to live up to it. I wanna show them the ropes. Hopefully when I’m done, they’ll be the same way.”
Will that mean the next star on the US National Team, or an MLS Cup champion in his rookie season? Is he the next Parkhurst, or the next Faria, who flamed out two years after breaking onto the MLS scene?
He’s none of those. Not yet, anyway. The future is barely written for Ream, despite all those inclined to pencil him as a savior in New York or a sure-fire selection for Brazil in 2014.
Ream, for his part, seems happiest in the present. He’s settled into his humble New Jersey abode and stays in touch with the former coaches and family members who helped him get here. It’s life as normal as best it can be after such a year of change, when Ream went from the guy who hardly spoke to the one everyone loves to talk about.
“I can’t get caught up in everything,” Ream said. “Who knows what’s going to happen? I’ll take the good with the bad, and hopefully I can learn from it. But I’m not about to get too far ahead of myself now.”
There will be more parties someday, more chances to celebrate with friends back in St. Louis, or maybe even under the bright lights of New York City. He turns 23 next week, he’s got his first MLS playoffs looming soon, and he’ll finally marry his college sweetheart.
Heck, he might even become the life of the party after all.
Nick Firchau is New Media Editor at MLSsoccer.com.