Chris Konopka, a 26-year-old alumnus of Toms River High School East (Toms River, N.J.) and Providence College, got the opportunity of a lifetime Saturday night.
After spending three years in Ireland, the 6'5" 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," said Konopka. "I grew up watching Tony Meola, Tim Howard. 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 that allows them 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 was delayed and arrived late Friday night after playing for the Senegalese national team.
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, in which he 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,” Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe said. “He’s looked very sharp. That’s why we have him over Alex Horwath.”
Konopka didn’t do terribly. He allowed two goals, but the team’s defensive effort was subpar, putting him in difficult spots on both goals as the Fire’s speedy forwards beat the Red Bulls' back line 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 center backs—who seemed not to notice that 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 defense 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, 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 Barouch slipped behind the defense after receiving a through ball—a recurring theme 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 storybook setting for Konopka, the total result probably wasn’t the kind that he dreamed of, 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, athletic keeper will be seen again.