Sunday, August 14, 2011

Chris Konopka Makes Solid Spot Start in Goal for the New York Red Bulls

Chris Konopka, a 26-year-old alumnus of Toms River High School East (Toms River, NJ) and Providence College, got the opportunity of a lifetime Saturday night. After spending three years in Ireland, the six-foot-five-inch goalkeeper made his first ever MLS start for his hometown New York Red Bulls in front of a sold-out crowd of 25,177.

“I grew up watching the MetroStars. I grew up watching Tony Meola, Tim Howard,” Konopka told the media. “They were the guys that I watched.”

The only other thing he could’ve asked for was a win.

Konopka made three saves as the Red Bulls came from behind to earn a point in a 2-2 draw against the Chicago Fire.

He was a surprise start to begin with. Konopka is an MLS pool goalkeeper, a resource available to teams in the league to bring in goalies in case of emergency. New York starter Frank Rost was ruled out earlier in the week due to a quadriceps injury. Former starter Bouna Coundoul was thought to be the logical replacement, but his flight back to the States after playing for the Senegalese National Team was late and didn’t arrive until late Friday night.

So it was down to Konopka, who had been training with the club, and Alex Horwath, who had made one start earlier in the season and didn’t surrender a goal in a 0-0 draw. Even though Horwath had the edge in “experience” and had been with the club longer, Konopka did enough to become the fifth goalie used by the Red Bulls this season and earn his first MLS start (Konopka spent 2007 with the then-Kansas City Wizards—now Sporting Kansas City—but did not make a regular season appearance with the team).

“Konopka has been outstanding this week,” head coach Hans Backe said. “He’s looked very sharp. That’s why we have him over Alex Horwath.”

Konopka didn’t do terribly. There were two goals allowed, but the team’s defensive effort was subpar and he was put in a difficult spot on both goals as the Fire’s speedy forwards beat the Red Bull’s backline multiple times.

On the first goal, Patrick Nyarko got free on the left side and sent in a cross in front of the net to former-Red Bull Dominic Oduro, who had gotten between the two centerbacks—who seemed to not notice Oduro made a cut to goal and was open. Konopka got a piece of the shot, but it trickled underneath him and into the back of the net.

The second goal came on a fast break. Once again, Nyarko got behind the defensive thanks to a through ball from Marco Poppa. Nyarko attempted to chip the ball over Konopka but the tall keeper was able to knock the shot down. The ball fell in front of Fire midfielder Sebastian Grazzini, however, who then put the rebound away.

“It’s a little bit unfortunate about it but it is what it is,” Konopka told reporters after the game. “I just had to turn and keep my head up and play the rest of the match.”

Konopka did make a nice save in the second half to preserve the tie. With some good passing from the Fire, Orr Barrouch slipped behind the defense after receiving a through ball (a recurring motif for the night) and dribbled in one-on-one with the goalie. Konopka came out, stayed low, cut off the angle and made a point-blank save.

While it was a story-book setting for Konopka, the total result probably wasn’t the kind that Konopka dreamed of in his ideal situation, especially when the Red Bulls could’ve really used a win as they make a push for the playoffs. Still he may have done enough to earn another chance.

Rost is out for a month. Coundoul is inconsistent and has fallen out of favor with club management. Greg Sutton was loaned out to the Montreal Impact. So, for at least one more week, if Konopka can continue his strong practice sessions, he may be given at least one more opportunity to start between the posts ahead of Horwath.

“You just gotta’ try and stay positive,” Konopka told the media after the game. “There’s nine games left till the end of this season. I’m a part of this team through and through till the end.”

Given the revolving door that has been the Red Bulls goalkeeper position this year, it certainly isn’t far-fetched to think that the big and athletic keeper will be seen again.

Photo credits.
Chris Konopka: photo from Waterford United,

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