Despite it being past 10 p.m., the heat was oppressive. Ream’s shirt was drenched; he was exhausted, but also revitalized.
Just two years on from the hardest season of his career, there he was in the center circle of the Khalifa International Stadium taking in the moment: Fulham captain, ever-present for his country, with his wife and three kids in the crowd.
The Netherlands had won 3-1, and the USMNT’s run was over, but just a month after turning 35, he had achieved his boyhood dream. Instead of looking at this snapshot as a crowning moment, though, it further reinforced his belief that he was far from done.
“It had been a whirlwind for me,” Ream said. “I was proud, though. I knew how much my wife and my kids sacrificed so I could go out and be there on the pitch. It was an unbelievable experience, and when that final whistle went against the Netherlands, I thought ‘OK, this is it, I’ve made 50 or so appearances for the U.S. team, I’ve made it to a World Cup and I’ve achieved my dream.’
“But the more I thought about it, I thought, ‘Why can’t I get to another one?’ I had that taste and I’m like, ‘I want another one.’ So that’s where I’m at.
“I sometimes feel like people are trying to retire me, but I’m not ready for that.”
Little more than six months on from the 2022 World Cup, Ream’s sitting on a bench at Fulham’s training ground in southwest London, threading his finger across the 6-inch-long scar running from his right wrist to near his elbow. The wound from his recent surgery is healing nicely, but not to the extent he can grip a handshake or drive.
It’s calm at Motspur Park in late May. The sun’s beating down, there are various offseason tweaks starting to be made to the place, but it’s quiet. He’s planning his family summer holidays, talking about how they’ll do a week in St. Louis and eight days at Disneyland. Ream’s season finished after fracturing his arm against Man City on April 30, bringing an end to his run of playing every league match for Fulham across their promotion season in 2021-22 and return to the Premier League in 2022-23.
“I set out to play in every Fulham match, maybe not the World Cup bit as I’d been out of the picture for a year at that point,” Ream said. “But that’s my goal heading into every season: to play every single game. And whether that’s because I want to, or because I can, it comes back to the fact I am still trying to prove myself every single day, every single week. This allows me to push myself and get the best out of myself each year. You have to prove yourself over and over again.”
Ream’s been doing just that his whole life. He holds his St. Louis roots close, visiting whenever he can, returning to where he started playing football making his way through the St. Louis Scott Gallagher and Saint Louis Billikens ranks before his MLS debut in 2010 for the New York Red Bulls. That was the year when he made the first of his caps for the USMNT.
His form caught the eye of Bolton Wanderers, and in January 2012 the then-Premier League side saw him as a midseason replacement for Chelsea-bound Gary Cahill. The approach clashed with an important booking: it was either his honeymoon with wife Kristen or a move to the Premier League.
Within 24 hours of cancelling the honeymoon, he made the transatlantic switch. It wasn’t an easy introduction to English football. Bolton were relegated, and in his first full season with the club, he’d make just 15 appearances in the Championship. He had offers to return to the U.S., but instead of retreating, he persevered. At the end of the 2014-15 season, having played 42 matches, he spoke to ESPN about life in English football.
“It’s just fighting your way through it,” he said at the time. “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.”
That fight and adaptability attracted the interest of Fulham, who picked him up that summer ahead of the 2015-16 campaign for a £1.5 million transfer fee. Eight years later, he’s enjoyed three promotions, endured three relegations and had four different managers.
“Constant change can be daunting, to be completely honest,” Ream said. “You think, ‘OK, they’re bringing in this guy, they’re bringing in that guy, where do I fit in?’ So you end up taking on more of a leadership role, not by design, but almost just a gravitational pull. You’ve been there for all the ins and outs and so it’s almost like a natural fit as you know who to speak to.
“But on the playing side, of course, it still causes a lot of unknowns, nervousness, anxiety and not knowing whether you’re in or out, but that’s football. I’ve always said that as quickly as things go well, things can go south a lot quicker. So it’s about keeping a level head.”
The biggest test of that level-headed mindset came during the 2020-21 campaign. Having been a mainstay in the Championship the previous term under Scott Parker, he’d play just seven top-flight matches under the same manager.
“I’d say that season was the toughest spell of my career,” Ream said. “You go into training thinking, ‘What am I training for? He’s not going to play me, he’s not speaking to me. What happens at the end of the year or in six months?’ It’s difficult.
“Obviously when I’m in training I was going to train hard, put the work in. Some guys will toss it off, be bad trainers and throw their toys out of the pram. But that’s not my style. So I made a decision to come in and work hard. I started to read a lot of books to take my mind off the situation.”
There were others in the same boat, like left-back Joe Bryan.
“Joe and I sat at the front of the bus that season together, had a lot of different, interesting conversations and some of the books were passed between us,” Ream said. “I think when you see someone sitting next to you that’s going through the same thing, you have that shared bond.”
As his teammates got changed and ready for the away matches, to keep his mind calm, Ream would read books like Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” and Angela Duckworth’s “Grit.” “It helped me immensely,” Ream said.
By the January transfer window, Ream was looking around.
“I’m not one for sitting there and collecting a paycheck. It’s not my style,” he said. “It came down to the last day, and I was ready for a move. I was ready to drive wherever I needed to go, but in the end the club interested went in a different direction, they went for a younger option. It’s fine at the end of the day, and it all works out in the end. It definitely worked out for me.”
That summer Fulham were relegated, Parker departed and Marco Silva joined.
“It was a complete reset,” Ream said. “[Silva] walked in and could see the faces, what had gone on and the mentality of the group. We’d had previously a coach who didn’t really want to be there anymore, but there were players at the club that did want to be here, so it felt like we were in a different place.”
Fulham, back in the Championship for the 2021-22 campaign, had promotion in their sights and Silva embraced the outcasts, putting them at the forefront of their charge. They’d go on to win the Championship and instead of wholesale change that summer, they made the odd tweak here and there to the playing squad, which resulted in last season’s 10th-place finish in the Premier League, their best top-flight return since the 2011-12 campaign. Ream was at the heart of the effort.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “It’s been hard, but the level of care Marco’s had for each individual guy who is playing or isn’t playing has been key. He pushes us, but it’s been fun and that’s key.”
The morning when we met in late May, Ream had been to visit his nine-year-old son Aidan’s school. It was one of those days where a couple of kids bring in their dad to talk to the class. Ream told the class about working hard, achieving goals and coping with setbacks, drawing lessons from a journey that’s taken him from Missouri to captaining Fulham.
He can’t put a finger on the amount of time he’s spent away from home because of his job, or the number of events he’s missed.
“It’s not like a woe-is-me complaint, but you miss a lot of things like school plays, concerts,” Ream said. “You miss out on first words, steps.”
Now that his family is at an age where they can enjoy their dad’s profession, though, it’s given him extra incentive to continue playing.
“I had this question the other day about what’s your greatest motivation,” Ream said. “Before it was just playing. My motivation was that I get to do my dream job for a living. But now, well, to show my kids what I can do and what is possible.”
When he gets home after matches, his performance faces a mini dissection. His sons Aidan and Theo, 7, ask why he made a certain pass, or why he stepped forward at a certain point in the backline. They’d ask him a little about the opponent, but first and foremost Aidan would talk about how dad played, while Theo would ask about his favorite player. “That’d be [Aleksandar Mitrovic],” Ream said. Lilia, 4, isn’t quite there yet, but along with wife Kristen, the group is a familiar presence at Craven Cottage watching their dad and husband run rings around those younger than him.
A player’s age hangs over them in the latter stages of their career. There are players who grow old reluctantly and look at pains as their powers wane; there are some who slip off into the sunset, or others go in search for one last payday. Or there are those who adapt.
“It’s a conscious decision of doing things the right way,” Ream said. “So instead of thinking, ‘OK, I’m 35, I can start to let myself fade a bit.’ Nope. I don’t want to fade, I want to keep going.”
Last season, there were just 10 outfield players aged 35 or older in the Premier League. Ream made the most appearances (33) out of any of them, six more than the next on the list, Chelsea’s Thiago Silva.
“I know that if I’m in a foot race, I’ve already made a mistake,” he said. “It comes with experience, but I think it comes with never having that top-end pace that guys have which meant they could recover and use that to their advantage. It’s a case of using probabilities to your advantage and making sure you’re seeing them before they happen.”
“I wish I had the answer, I wish I knew what it was,” Ream said. “But I enjoy coming out here every day, coming to this place. I enjoy coming to work with a mindset [that] I can learn something new and taking that into every training session is important as it keeps my mind and body sharp.”
Which brings us to life after football, but, in short, he’s not giving that more thought than needed.
“People say I should go into coaching, but I’m away from the family enough,” Ream said. “There have been some media opportunities offered my way, but I’ve rebuffed them. I’m not ready, I still love [playing].”
This is Ream’s 16th preseason. His summer has been about fitness work, family time and his holiday. He parked any temptation of forcing his way back prematurely to play for the USMNT in the Gold Cup. He knows his body and how to manage it.
“I’m not one to sit back and rest on what I’ve done previously,” he said. “I think that’s the quickest way to fall down the pecking order and the quickest way to find yourself out of the team. It’s the quickest way to find yourself retired at 35 years old. And it’s a matter of, what are my goals this season? Well, they’re the same as last season but you know you’re going to have to work harder as you’re a little bit older, but also a little bit wiser.”
On that first day back at Motspur Park, he’ll greet those he’s known for eight years, introduce himself to any new players and prepare himself for a grueling preseason. He’ll be excited.
“I’m proving to myself that I can continue to do it and continue to do it over and over again,” Ream said. “I love running with the younger lads, I enjoy keeping up with them and actually leaving them behind in a competitive sort of way.”
Fulham’s opener is at Everton on Aug. 12, with Brentford coming to Craven Cottage a week later. His family will be in the crowd, the USMNT will be keeping an eye on his form and progress, and Ream will continue doing what he loves as he starts his 15th professional season. Above all, he’ll be proving to himself he’s far from ready to think about anything post-football.
“I’m still not retiring,” he said. “There have been many people who have tried to tell me that it’s time to move on. You get it all the time from people saying, ‘You’re too old’ or ‘You can’t do it anymore.’ I’m living proof that you can.
“People are trying to write ‘It’s the final chapter,’ but I still feel fresh. I still feel like playing three, four years and have told people that. I think it’s important that you verbalize what you want to do and put it out there, don’t just sit on it.
“So that’s my secret, ’cause I just think there’s still things to learn, still things to do.”
U.S.’s Ream isn’t ready to retire. He wants 2026 World Cup