November began poorly for New York Red Bulls defender Tim Ream.
On Nov. 3, he lost out to D.C. United's Andy Najar for Major League Soccer’s Rookie of the Year. A day later, his team fell 3-1 to the San Jose Earthquakes and found themselves bounced out of the playoffs by a 3-2 aggregate score.
For the center back – who became just the third rookie in league history to play every minute for his club – it was one of the most difficult stretches in a year that's otherwise "gone above and beyond" his expectations.
On Tuesday morning, his early November misfortune reversed course when he received a call asking him to join US head coach Bob Bradley and the rest of the United States national team in South Africa for the friendly on Nov. 17.
The 23-year-old knew he was on the national-team radar – he says his agent stays in contact with the US gaffer and alerted his client to the possibility – but the former Saint Louis University star says he was still surprised.
[inline_node:319852]"I don't think you're ever prepared for your first call-up," Ream told MLSsoccer.com by phone this week. "I was surprised. I was more prepared to be called in for the January camp, something where [the coaches] can get a long look at you. It was a pleasant surprise to be asked to go to the last friendly of the year."
It's the first opportunity for the 18th overall pick in the 2010 SuperDraft to suit up for the Red, White and Blue at any level. Ream didn't try out for any age-level squads, preferring instead to stay in places where he felt at ease.
"I've been one of those reserved type of guys that didn't go for bigger and better things," he said. "I tried to stay in a comfort zone, so to speak. I've always felt that I was a decent player, but I thought that my abilities were fine in college, instead of [trying to be like] some of the other guys like Najar and [Danny] Mwanga, who are coming into the league at 17, 18 years old.
"I'm not a late bloomer. It's more that I haven't been noticed."
Ream, who developed his love of the game while watching his father coach Washington University, entered Red Bulls camp as a relative unknown. But he didn't stay under the radar for long.
During preseason, coach Hans Backe publicly praised his charge's poise, athleticism and, most importantly, his confidence and skill on the ball.
[inline_node:317983]Ream quickly moved into the starting lineup, earning an assist against Brazilian power Santos on March 20 and playing what would become his standard 90 minutes in New York's season-opening 1-0 victory against the Chicago Fire a week later.
Throughout the MLS campaign, the center back – who credits Red Bull captain Mike Petke with helping him adjust and encouraging the soft-spoken player to become a vocal leader – earned high marks for his distribution and playmaking ability. Bradley no doubt noticed this, as his first-choice defenders sometimes struggle to key the American attack.
But here's the thing about the Red Bulls' emerging star: He's not a small guy and he wants to throw his body around. Ream is listed at 6-foot-1 and has bulked up from his days at SLU, and plans to continue getting stronger while altering his mentality just a bit.
"It's just having a little bit of a bite instead of being that finesse guy," he said.
Ream has a wonderful sparring partner in the talented striker Juan Agudelo, who also earned his first trip with the senior team. Dealing with the strong 17-year-old will help the defender develop an edge to his game, and having a friendly face on the plane will help him deal with the some anticipated anxiety.
"Nervous is a good word," Ream said. "Butterflies. But it's one of those situations where if you're not nervous, there's probably something wrong with you. I'm not overwhelmed. Nerves are going to play a part, but at the end of the day, it's just a game."
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Noahedavis.