By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Aug 15, 2011) US Soccer Players — Chris Konopka has spent the past year chasing his dream of playing in Major League Soccer. On Saturday night, Konopka got a chance to live that dream when he started for the New York Red Bulls before a sellout crowd of 25,000.
“All in all, for my League debut, I enjoyed it,” said Konopka, who surrendered two goals as New York and Chicago played to a 2-2 draw. Konopka sounded a bit disappointed at the outcome, although he had a solid game – recording three saves in the process.
On Friday afternoon – 24 hours before the game – Konopka had oozed excitement after head coach Hans Backe had told him he’d be the starter against the Fire. To celebrate, Konopka drove to the beach in his native New Jersey and spent the rest of the day enjoying the sun.
Konopka, 26, had been waiting for such a chance for the past five months, working tirelessly in practice for an opportunity at some playing time. On first glance, Konopka is like any other MLS player. He makes sure his skills remain sharp by training every day and maintains a proper diet. But for Konopka, there's a difference. Unlike the vast majority of players in the League, Konopka does not have a team to call his own. Instead, he is part of the league-wide reserve goalkeeper pool used by teams across MLS whenever they are hit by an injury.
“If anyone gets hurt,” said Konopka, “then I get a call and they fly me out.”
Konopka was last called into action July 26th when he played for the Columbus Crew in a friendly against English club Newcastle United. That night, Konopka also let in two goals in a 3-0 loss after coming in before halftime when starter Andy Gruenebaum was shown a red card for handling the ball outside the box.
“I was ready (to play) that night,” Konopka recalled, arriving just a few hours before kick-off. “The team had told me to stay sharp because there was a chance I’d get a half.”
Unlike emergency loan deals brokered between English clubs whenever a team is hit by an injury, MLS has had a goalkeeper pool for the past few years made up of players under contract with the League. Under MLS rules, teams can add such a player for a game if they have less than two goalkeepers available or fewer than 15 players. A player like Konopka usually trains with a specific team, although they are not officially part of the roster.
Konopka may be a new face to MLS fans, but he has a background in one of the lesser known European leagues. It might help you out in a pub quiz, so pay attention. Chris Konopka holds the distinction of being the first America-born player to win the Irish double, capturing the League of Ireland and FAI Cup in 2008 with Bohemians.
“There were guys who had played for 18 years (in Ireland) who’d never won a medal and I won two my first year,” Konopka said.
Originally drafted into MLS by the Kansas City Wizards in 2007 out of Providence College, Konopka never played a game after the team elected not exercise his contract option. Open to play for other teams, Konopka went abroad and signed with Bohemians. A journeyman keeper, Konopka has been a member of five clubs since 2007 and spent this past winter training with the Crew in Arizona.
“MLS is a fantastic League, but it’s very tough for a goalkeeper to break into. The competition is fierce,” he said. “I never got a chance (in Kansas City). At the time, Kevin Hartman was playing very well and having a great season. He is still having great seasons. I was only 22 at the time and there was no place for me.”
This year, Konopka decided to rejoin MLS. For an annual salary of $42,000, Konopka gets the chance to train regularly with the Red Bulls. Konopka has never had to travel to the West Coast for a game. That task is given to Konopka’s counterpart Kevin Guppy, a pool player who lives in California and trains with the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA.
Konopka said he opted to be a pool goalie because it gave him a chance to be closer to his family, who live in New Jersey.
“This was really a perfect opportunity for me and it allowed me to stay close to them,” he said.
Konopka, who also holds a Polish passport by virtue of his ancestry, said he was originally “looking overseas” for playing opportunities last year, specifically in England. A death in the family altered his plans, Konopka said, and that’s when he decided to join MLS.
“I jumped on the opportunity. I grew up watching the MetroStars. I really wanted to be part of the Red Bulls in any way I could,” he said.
Konopka called the opportunity to train with the Red Bulls “a fantastic chance” and said he has gotten better after regularly trying to stop shots unleashed from the likes of Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, and Juan Agudelo.
“It’s definitely been worth it,” he said of his current position. “The guys have improved my game. The Red Bulls play at a high-octane pace. The guys are non-stop and high-performance. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I can feel that I’m getting better every single day.”
Konopka grew up idolizing former National Team star Tony Meola and always knew he wanted to be a keeper.
“Goalkeepers are huge in New Jersey,” he said. “Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be like Tony Meola. I trained with Tim Howard when I was 14.”
Konopka said the goalkeeper merry-go-round that has taken place at the Red Bulls this season – where four different goalies have been used – has been beneficial to him. The Red Bulls recently acquired German veteran Frank Rost and have last year’s starter Bouna Coundoul on the bench.
After Rost suffered an injury and Coundoul returned Friday night after a call-up for his native Senegal, the Red Bulls had little choice but to go with Konopka, who got the nod over third-string keeper Alex Horwath.
“Konopka has been outstanding this week,” Backe said, explaining why he went with the pool keeper. “He’s looked very sharp. That’s why we have him over Alex Horwath.”
“A lot is up in the air at the moment,” Konopka said when asking about the team’s current goalkeeping situation. “I’m hoping to take advantage of that.”
Konopka, however, has no illusion that he will become a starter anytime soon. He admitted that being a pool keeper could, at times, be a humbling experience, but added that he has no ego.
“You just put your head down and go to work,” he said. “Nobody wants to be a pool goalkeeper, but sometimes you need to be one in order to make it here. I’m interested in getting games. Nobody wants to sit on the bench or be a reserve player. For me, the next 10 weeks are a trial for trying to be part of this team.”