By Peter Schwartz
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The last time the Red Bulls stepped foot on the pitch at Harvard, it wasn’t a very pleasant experience.
It was on June 12, 2013, when they lost to the New England Revolution 4-2 in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup tournament. Back then, the venue at Harvard was named Soldiers Field Soccer Stadium. A little more than four years later, the Red Bulls return to what is now called Jordan Field on Thursday night for another contest with the Revs, but this time it’s a quarterfinal fixture in the U.S. Open Cup.
The Red Bulls’ lineup will look vastly different than the group they brought to Harvard in 2013, as there are only three current players who were active for that game.
“I don’t think there are too many guys left,” Red Bulls goalkeeper Ryan Meara told WFAN.com. “I might be the only one who played in that game that will be playing on Thursday.”
Meara is absolutely right, as goalkeeper Luis Robles and defender Connor Lade were available substitutes for the game four years ago but didn’t get in the game. This Thursday, Meara is expected to get his third straight start in this year’s U.S. Open Cup after backstopping the Red Bulls to wins over NYCFC and the Philadelphia Union to get to this point.
“To be at the quarterfinal stage right now in this tournament, especially having beaten two of our rivals, NYCFC and Philly, we’re all excited,” said the former star at Fordham Prep and Fordham University. “I think we’re all feeling pretty confident, and we know it’s going to be a real battle against New England. They’re always a tough team to play against.”
That was the case last week in Foxborough, as the Red Bulls rallied for a 3-2 MLS regular season win over the Revolution at Gillette Stadium. They always seem to have trouble with the Revolution in New England, but now they have the experience of winning up north to lean on.
“It definitely gives us confidence,” said Meara, who guided NYRB II to last year’s United Soccer League title. “We still have that good feeling from (July 5) when we beat them up in Foxborough, but at the same time, we also know how much of a battle the game was. We have a lot of respect for New England.”
Speaking of respect, Meara has been earning a lot of that within the Red Bulls’ locker room during this tournament.
For regular season matches, Meara serves as the backup to Robles, but he has been the man in the U.S. Open Cup, giving up just one goal in two games while also coming up with a big save in the penalty-kick shootout against the Union in the round of 16.
With the Red Bulls just three victories away from winning the oldest trophy in the history of U.S. soccer, Meara is relishing the chance to play.
“I think it’s been great,” said the 26-year-old Crestwood, New York, native. “Any chance I can get some real meaningful real minutes on the field is always something I’m happy about.”
In their 21-year history, the Red Bulls have yet to win an MLS Cup, but they have also fallen short in their quest to capture the U.S. Open Cup. With a regular season also ongoing, there are times when MLS teams will use these games to give young players a chance to play. Meara is making the most of his chance as the Red Bulls look to hoist some hardware.
The lineup and the substitutions may look a little different than an MLS game, but don’t think for a second that the Red Bulls are taking the U.S. Open Cup lightly.
“It’s a tournament that means a lot to us,” Meara said. “I think any time you’re this far you’re excited and you’re starting to maybe think about making the semifinal and then making the final.”
Robles just signed a new contract with the Red Bulls and remains the club’s starting goalkeeper for MLS games. But Meara is getting a chance to shine in the U.S. Open Cup, and he has his team just 90 minutes (or more) away from the final four in this prestigious tournament.
And on Thursday night, he’ll get a chance to help the Red Bulls flip the script on what happened on the same pitch four years ago.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @NewYorkRedBulls, @RedBullArena, and @ussoccer