MADRID – Two years ago, Tim Ream was a little-known rookie and second-round MLS Draft pick who wasn't expected to be a major factor for the New York Red Bulls. A year later, Ream was coming off a dream rookie season that earned him a US national team call-up and talk that European clubs were beginning to take notice.
Now, two years later, and after a roller coaster 2011 that saw him endure his share of rough moments, Ream is set to join Bolton on a $3 million transfer after securing his UK work permit on appeal.
The 24-year-old defender had been the subject of considerable transfer speculation since last summer, in the midst of a run of up and down play that saw him commit blunders for both the United States and Red Bulls. Mistakes he made that led to opposition goals didn't cool off interest in him from clubs, who were clearly enamored with his excellent technical ability and superior passing skills as a left-footed center back.
English club Arsenal took notice, scouting Ream closely for a large part of the 2011 MLS season, as did Dutch club PSV Eindhoven. BPL side West Bromwich also began showing interest in Ream, but it wasn't until Bolton brought him in for a trial and sold Gary Cahill that the wheels were put in place for a record-setting transfer (the $3 million transfer fee Bolton is expected to pay for Ream will mark the highest transfer fee ever paid for an MLS defender).
Critics of Ream will wonder just how a player who committed so many errors in 2011, from his penalty in the US team's Gold Cup loss to Panama, to being beaten on the game-winning goal against Ecuador in October, still drew so much attention from European clubs. Ultimately, teams saw a player with an impressive skill set who endured a poor run of form, but who still consistently flashed the passing ability and good defensive plays that gave scouts confidence he could work out the kinks that led to so many problems in 2011.
Ream's securing of a work permit is also a signature moment for American soccer players. With just two caps in official competitive national team matches (not friendlies), Ream secured a work permit via appeal after failing to qualify automatically. It seems like just yesterday when the likes of Brad Friedel, Bobby Convey and Brad Guzan (to name a few) saw big transfer moves to the UK halted by rejected work permit appeals.
Times are changing on that front, in no small part because of the growing relationships forged by American-based soccer agents in England. Work permit appeals processes are very much a political game of knowing the right people and having allies positioned in prime places. As more players have moved and done well abroad, American sports agencies have forced ties to European-based agencies; as the connections in the UK and throughout Europe have led to more transfer opportunities, and an easier road for Americans to make moves.
Now it will be up to Ream to show that he is closer to being the impressive defender he was in 2010, when as a rookie he anchored the New York back-line to a regular season Eastern Conference title (and when he was edged out by Andy Najar for MLS Rookie of the Year). He showed steadier form late in 2011, including in the playoffs. A fresh start in England might just help him regain his top form.
Bolton will need him to be at his best if there is going to be a realistic hope of avoiding relegation. The Trotters are likely to add some more reinforcements during the transfer window, with Philadelphia Union striker Sebastien Le Toux a possible transfer option. With Bolton's faulty defense in mind, Ream is going to be key to helping Bolton turn things around.
If Ream does play well, not only will he help facilitate a likely return to the national team mix, where he is still one of Klinsmann's best left-footed center back options, but he will only help pave the way for more Premier League teams to take chances on MLS players. It is clear that the stigma of MLS players being able to play in England is fading fast, but Ream will play a key role in keeping that momentum going.