Why Do MLS Teams Suck at Drafting Goalkeepers? / by Bill Reno

By Bill Reno (@letsallsoccer)

Last year I interviewed John McCarthy, who at the time I was sure would be an MLS SuperDraft pick. McCarthy had just graduated from LaSalle University, and while his school didn't make that year's NCAA tournament, it was obvious he was good enough to play professionally. Still, the SuperDraft came and went, and McCarthy went untouched in the four rounds.

Andre Blake was the heralded newcomer, but the other three selections---along with other MLS combine invitees---were largely unknown. McCarthy responded to the setback by signing with the Rochester Rhinos, where he unseated an MLS-loaned player on his way to being named both USL Goalkeeper and Rookie of the Year. So how did MLS miss this one?

Every January, MLS teams draft collegiate players in the aptly named MLS SuperDraft. But for being in a country that is renowned for producing elite goalkeepers, MLS has a miserable time of identifying the talent. Consistently good collegiate goalkeepers take an unnecessarily long road to get to MLS while clubs select goalkeepers that never make an appearance. Here is a list of every drafted goalkeeper since 2006.

MLSgks.png

Names highlighted blue were invited to MLS combine
GS - Games started, orange numbers have at least five starts a year since draft
LG.2, LG.4 - If GK continually stayed in MLS two, four years later
TM.2, TM.4 - If GK continually stayed with team two, four years later
Y1, Y2, Y3, Y4 - Status of GK in first four years

The list looks at the first four years of each drafted goalkeeper. In the nine years covered, 60 goalkeepers were taken in either the SuperDraft or the following Supplemental Draft. Of those 60, only 31 (52%) finished the first year with the team that drafted them. After four years, two thirds of the goalkeepers weren't even in the league anymore. And with Billy Knutsen and Luis Soffner's contracts not being extended, it's looking like only four of the ten goalkeepers drafted in the past two years will still be with their original team.

What's even more bizarre, goalkeepers drafted after the 40th pick have a higher collective number of starts than those drafted before it.

Drafted Appearances # GKs # GKs (1+ GS)
1 - 40 408 20 12
41+ 501 40 12

Even though the number of post-40 draft picks double those drafted earlier, when you remove the goalkeepers that never started, both groups have twelve goalkeepers. Half of the goalkeepers selected in the first two rounds didn't get more than ten starts. Not only are goalkeepers being poorly selected in the draft, but it doesn't matter all that much when they were drafted or in what round. Late or early, they have surprisingly low chances of ever starting in MLS. The inefficiencies of the SuperDraft continue when you survey the current goalkeeper pool.

Orange names are starters Blue numbers were in the first 40 draft picks

Orange names are starters
Blue numbers were in the first 40 draft picks

Sixty goalkeepers were on an MLS roster this past year. Excluding the 18 goalkeepers that were not able to be selected in a collegiate draft (including Marcus Hahnemann, who graduated two years before MLS started), 16 current MLS goalkeepers went completely undrafted and entered the league later, including six current starters. Another three starters couldn't, or wouldn't, agree to a contract with an MLS side.

What if more than a quarter of all NFL quarterbacks were originally undrafted and represented 30 percent of last weekend's starters? That's ten Kurt Warners! It's not that there aren't enough rounds in the draft for goalkeepers to be drafted, it's that the SuperDraft is incredibly ineffective in scouting MLS talent. And the talent is definitely there. Fourteen of the 19 starting MLS goalkeepers came from NCAA, and 75 percent of all goalkeepers in MLS played college ball, including Canadians. Even on the international scene, NCAA has served the USMNT as well.

USMNT Caps Player USMNT Years College
104 Tim Howard 2002–2014 Did not attend college
102 Kasey Keller 1990–2007 University of Portland
100 Tony Meola 1988–2002 University of Virginia
82 Brad Friedel 1992–2004 UCLA
28 Brad Guzan 2006–2014 South Carolina
16 Nick Rimando 2002–2014 UCLA
15 Mark Dodd 1988–1998 Duke
9 Marcus Hahnemann 1994–2011 Seattle Pacific University
8 Juergen Sommer 1994–1998 Indiana University
8 Zach Thornton 1994–2001 Loyola University Maryland
7 Troy Perkins 2009–2010 South Florida
5 Kevin Hartman 1999–2006 UCLA
4 Sean Johnson 2011–2013 University of Central Florida
3 Jonny Walker 2004 Louisville
2 Joe Cannon 2003–2005 Santa Clara University
2 Bill Hamid 2012–2014 Did not attend college
2 Matt Reis 2006–2007 UCLA
1 Jon Busch 2005 Charlotte
1 Tom Presthus 1999 Southern Methodist University
1 Zach Wells 2006 UCLA
1 David Yelldell 2010 Did not attend college
1 Luis Robles 2009 University of Portland

Drafted players regularly don't work out in any league. There are only so many spots on rosters so not everyone is going to make it. But good goalkeepers are consistently coming out of the NCAA---ones good enough to play for the national team---yet MLS still hasn't figured out who they are.

There are too many goalkeepers getting invited to the combine, but then not drafted. There are too many goalkeepers that go undrafted and yet eventually do make it. MLS clubs are making bizarre trades for eventual starting goalkeepers. Teams are overpaying aging goalkeepers. Teams overstock on goalkeepers they can't unload. The league's entire approach to goalkeeping is mind-boggling, and few are getting it right. With the expansion of MLS-USL affiliations, goalkeepers are getting more secured playing time, but it doesn't matter much if MLS continues to pass on top goalkeepers and mishandle the ones they currently have.