Tim Ream had never watched a professional soccer team be relegated until last week, and it was a scene that left him feeling like he had never felt before.
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The American defender watched Blackburn’s recent loss to Wigan, the match that sealed Rovers’ relegation fate, and Ream felt a pain in his gut. It wasn’t just the images of dejected players and devastated Blackburn fans that hit him, it was the knowledge that his own team, Bolton, could face a similar fate on Sunday.
“I don’t know if anybody who follows American sports like basketball, baseball or American football would even understand what (relegation) is like,” Ream said. “You watch the [Blackburn] game and as the game progresses and Wigan scores, you see Blackburn and how they react.
“The pit that I had in my stomach watching them be relegated was something I’ve never experienced,” Ream said. “You don’t get that watching a playoff game in MLS. I can’t compare it to anything. It’s a horrible feeling. Sitting there watching the game and you think about your own team and the games that you’ve had in the past two or three weeks that were ties but could have been better results.
“It was heartbreaking to watch and I wasn’t even playing in the game.”
Ream should be on the field on Sunday, when Bolton takes on Stoke City in a match with relegation implications. The Trotters need to win at Stoke City and have first-place Manchester City defeat Queens Park Rangers in order for Bolton to remain in the Barclays Premier League.
“We have everything to play for on Sunday,” Ream said. “Obviously with a little help from Manchester City, if we get a win against Stoke then we’ll be safe and back in the Premier League next year.”
Ream’s first half season in English football has been filled with surprises and emotional moments, as well as the satisfaction that comes with having made the successful transition from MLS to England.
Having joined Bolton from the New York Red Bulls in January for an estimated $3 million transfer fee, Ream came to a team that looked destined for relegation. There was also no guarantee that Ream would play. In fact, it wasn’t clear in the beginning if Ream would even complete the move because of the uncertainty surrounding his ability to secure a work permit.
“That was the most nerve-wracking thing, not knowing if the move would even happen because of the work permit,” said Ream, who secured a work permit via appeal. “With everything going on, from my wedding to canceling my honeymoon, and not knowing whether I would be staying in England or going back to New York and starting training camp.”
Ream endured that uncertainty even on his wedding day on January 7, which took place while he was still waiting for his work permit, which came two weeks later.
“That was the hardest part, not knowing what would happen,” Ream said. “But since I’ve gotten the work permit everything else has fallen into place.”
All Ream has done is secure a starting spot with Bolton just as the club was in the thick of a relegation fight. He has started 12 straight league games for the Trotters, and has provided the same passing skill out of the back that helped him make the amazing jump from a relative unknown college senior, two and a half years ago, to Premier League starter.
The smooth transition may have come as a surprise to some who watched Ream struggle during a tumultuous 2011. That year saw Ream go from surprising rookie to national team prospect. He wasn’t completely ready for the increased expectations and it showed in important matches. He made major mistakes in high-profile matches, such as national team matches against Panama (Gold Cup) and Ecuador. Ream’s struggles carried over to MLS, when just a year earlier he had turned heads as a savvy and skilful rookie defender.
“The biggest thing last year was a mental struggle, fighting myself more than anything,” Ream said. “You have a good first year and you want to build on that and you put pressure on yourself to do just as well, if not better.
“I think it was more forcing the issue,” Ream said. “Then you throw in the added pressure of the national team and the growing expectations that come with that and I think it just snowballed.”
Those struggles didn’t end interest in Ream from European clubs, and didn’t stop Bolton from buying Ream as a replacement for Gary Cahill. Ream learned from the mistakes of 2011 and his maturity as a player has been evident in his play with Bolton.
“I had to get back to what I did in 2010 and just forget about mistakes,” Ream said. “Everybody’s going to make mistakes. Unfortunately I made some last year in important games with the national team and league play. It’s just one of those things that happens.
“Everybody’s human. I’ve come to accept that and I think it’s given me a newfound confidence to shake off any mistakes I may make.”
Ream didn’t have to wait long to get a taste of just how different things would be for him in England. Bolton manager Owen Coyle threw his new signing in at the deep end, giving Ream his first two league starts against Chelsea and Manchester City.
“Playing Chelsea my first league game and basically having (Didier) Drogba on your hip the entire game, and having (Daniel) Sturridge and (Frank) Lampard running at you was an experience,” Ream said. “Then you go to my second game against Manchester City, and having to run around the field chasing Yaya Toure, I remember feeling like my head was spinning.
“The manager showed faith in me and even though I hadn’t really played in midfield in years it was a chance to help the team, so I did it.”
Bolton lost those first starts for Ream, but then went on to win three straight matches to revive their chances of staying in the Premier League. In the midst of that winning streak came one of the most stunning scenes of the season; Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba’s heart attack on the field during an FA Cup match versus Tottenham. The incident, which nearly killed Muamba, had a profound impact on Bolton and Ream.
“Watching (Muamba) just hit the ground with nobody around him was strange, and even that night and the days after, we didn’t really do much and it all felt like a dream,” Ream said.
“Every hour you’re replaying the scenes and thinking about what could have been, what might have been. It was just very surreal and it makes you stop and think about what’s important in life and obviously we’re very lucky to play a game for a living.
“At the end of the day, when you see someone go down like that, especially somebody on your team, it brings you back to reality really quickly,” Ream said. “It makes you cherish the important things and helps you understand that at any given moment something can happen and you’re no longer playing or maybe even no longer alive.”
Muamba’s brush with death motivated Bolton and helped push them on to a winning streak that boosted them back into the race; a race that will conclude on Sunday, either with Bolton celebrating survival or suffering the painful fate of relegation.
Ream is looking forward to that challenge, and another new experience in a year that has already had a career’s worth of twists and turns. He stands a good chance of being called into the US national team training camp later this month, and the experience he has earned at Bolton should help him in the battle for playing time under US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
National team concerns are far from Ream’s mind right now though. He is focused on Sunday’s match against Stoke. It will be the most important match he has ever played in, and Ream knows full well what is on the line.
“Everybody knows how important staying in the Premier League is, and the only thing we can control is how we play on Sunday,” Ream said.
“If we win, we’ll give ourselves a good chance of staying up. We know winning is our only option and it’s up to us to play like it.”