Tim Ream continues to impress as Bolton's utility man
BOLTON, England -- As Tim Ream leaned against the wall just outside the Bolton Wanderers locker room on Wednesday, it was tough to tell that he and his teammates had just suffered a soul-crushing 2-1 defeat to Liverpool in a fourth-round FA Cup relay.
Outwardly at least, he looked his usual stoic self, but make no mistake; this loss, one that saw Liverpool strike twice after the 86th minute, cut deep.
"For the most part, we defended for our lives and to give up a goal in the last five minutes of regulation and then give up a deflected goal off the crossbar, in the first minute of injury time, it's a tough one to take. It really is."
For Ream at least, the game still contained some significant positives. Playing on the left side of a three-man back line, Ream looked his usual composed self on the ball and won his share of individual battles, including a late scrap with Liverpool forward Daniel Sturridge. If U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann plans on persisting with playing three in the back, he may want to look to the Greater Manchester area for a solution to his problems.
"Playing three at the back at this level and jumping up to international level is a different animal," Ream noted. "But I'd be happy to try it out."
True, there was a moment or two when Ream showed a little too much comfort on the ball, getting caught in possession as he and his Bolton teammates tried to protect a 1-0 lead. But overall, the St. Louis native delivered an utterly consistent performance, a feat made more impressive by the fact that he was playing a somewhat unfamiliar position, though that in itself isn't anything new.
This season, Ream has been Bolton's proverbial Mr. Fix It. While he's played primarily as a left-back in a four-man back line, he's also played center-back in a back four, center midfield, marking back in a back three and even as a wing-back in a 3-5-2. That versatility has been a boon to new manager Neil Lennon, as Bolton have overcome a horrendous start that saw them win one of their first 11 to now sit in a respectable 14th place in the 24-team English Championship.
"Neil has come in and just changed the entire mindset of the team," Ream said. "We've been hard to be beat most games and keeping a lot of clean sheets, and then going down the other end and scoring quite a few goals. It's been a nice turnaround and a nice change of fortune for us."
This is Ream's fourth season with the club, and it's clear he's used his time well. He's become a fan favorite; Wednesday's home crowd could be heard yelling "Reeeeam" after a few vital interventions. And while he'll never be mistaken for an ultra-physical defender like Liverpool's Martin Skrtel, he's improved enough in his tackling and aerial ability that the concern about him getting out-muscled on the field has been greatly reduced.
"Everything is well-rounded now," he said. "My passing game has always been my strongest suit, and I think that's even better. Now especially playing games like this, you have to have confidence in yourself to get out of difficult situations. That's what I have."
Ream also has the experience of fighting through a rough spell at club level and emerging the better for it. This was especially true during his first full season in Bolton when he made just 15 appearances. But he followed that up last year with a standout campaign in which he played in 45 games in all competitions.
"It's just fighting your way through it," he said. "There are going to be rough patches, and it's just a matter of getting your foot into the team and keeping it there, making it hard on the staff to take you out, and that's what I've done. It helps that I can play a few different positions, and obviously we're short on numbers, or have been."
"It's just a matter of playing your game wherever they put you. Whether you have a bad game or not, if you do, you get over it pretty quickly and move onto the next one. If you have a good game, you keep that going. It's pretty simple really."
Ream is part of a shrinking contingent of U.S. internationals playing consistently with an overseas club. He signed a new contract with Bolton last summer that runs through the 2016-17 season, but with MLS throwing huge sums of money at U.S. internationals, might he be tempted to soon return to the league where he got his start?
"No, not at all, and to be honest at this point -- I'm only 27 -- I'm not really interested in going back yet," he said. "I'm obviously enjoying my time here and playing well for Bolton. The team is picking up points, and I haven't even given it a thought to come back yet."
As for Ream's international prospects, those have picked up since the World Cup. The four appearances he made toward the tail end of 2014 were the most he had since 2011. Ream added he hasn't talked much to Klinsmann lately but knows he's being watched.
"Klinsmann is always in contact with a lot of guys and in contact with agents," he said. "They have an entire scouting system over here in Europe now. Every now and again I'll get a text message or a phone call saying Matthias Hamann is coming to a game or one of the staff is coming to a game. I don't speak to him personally, but do get texts now and again and see guys at games. They're keeping their eye on me."
That looks set to continue, no matter what formation Klinsmann decides to use.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.