Goalkeepers: Under Attack! / by Bill Reno

By Bill Reno (@letsallsoccer)

There’s an interesting movement happening in MLS with officiating towards goalkeeping. Wherever you stand on the quality of MLS referees, you can’t argue that they’re quick to call penalties, whether it’s on a defender or a goalkeeper. Tim Froh captured a good quote from an international player on the differences between playing in MLS versus playing back home in Argentina. So let’s take a look at what’s happening in MLS and where it could be going.

1. Sean Johnson vs. Columbus


Nothing really to see here. This is a penalty 100% of the time regardless that the player has kicked the ball out of the play before Sean Johnson makes contact. Some may want to argue that that has relevance on if it should count as a penalty but imagine this play happening outside the box. It most definitely would be a foul for coming in late, either be a goalie or field player, and it’s unfortunate for Chicago it happens in the box. It’s a tough play for a goalkeeper but they have to keep their bodies in control, especially when they’re coming in second.

2. Chris Konopka vs. New York City

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MLS suspended Chris Konopka for one game for his slide. This is a really interesting play for a multitude of reasons. They slow down the video here to show that Konopka makes little if not zero contact against Andoni Iraola. There is no foul or warning given. The players on both teams do not react in any sort of way that would imply that they thought it was a dangerous play. The announcers do not notice anything out of the ordinary. So the late suspension is odd yet the worst of it is that MLS gives no explanation as to how Konopka should have handled the situation. He challenges the ball in a compact manner (no arm or leg is in an awkward spot) and Iraola has enough time to leap to avoid contact. It would seem like this is a safe play to make as a goalkeeper.

A counter view on this play asks, “What would have happened if Iraola had not leaped to avoid contact?” Can a goalkeeper, or any player, get called for a foul if there is no contact made? Ideally, yes. If a player has to make such a drastic movement to avoid a dangerous play it should still be called, but the reality is that most players and fans judge a foul on the contact that’s made. There is the underlying tone of “no harm no foul” when it comes to fouls. Konopka makes a very similar play only minutes later where a penalty is called because he makes contact. Before we start to answer any questions, let’s look at one more play that didn’t go a goalkeeper’s way.

3. Stefan Frei vs. Sporting Kansas City

Thanks to Seattle Sounders for providing multiple videos on this so we can take a closer look. It’s almost like they weren’t happy with that call. Here’s the play in multiple angles, as well as an interview with Stefan Frei, who wasn’t thrilled with the penalty call. Frei makes multiple points as to why it shouldn’t have been a penalty, stating it was a 50-50 ball and that he hits the ball before he makes contact with Dom Dwyer, who also runs into Frei. Another point that Frei doesn’t make is that he doesn’t challenge with as much malice as he could have. You can see how he spins after the contact, indicating his knee isn’t being used as a weapon, which is credit to Frei for mindfully protecting players.

The call is made solely because Dwyer made contact with the ball first. If Frei gets there first, the call isn’t made unless he comes in cleats up or something equally absurd. So the question here is, are Frei’s points valid? Both players are aware of the situation and challenging for the ball and, like a slide tackle with a defender, if a goalkeeper gets the ball first before they tackle their opposition, it is typically not called a foul.

MLS has started treating goalkeepers as equals with field players

Across the globe, goalkeepers are given a little leeway on tight situations. However in MLS, if a goalkeepers creates a dangerous play, regardless of the situation, they will most likely face a penalty and risk suspension. Picture a defender sliding in with cleats up or spread legs that endanger another player. Clearly there is a line for goalkeepers to cross between getting the ball and hurting players in the process. A goalkeeper cannot drive his knee into someone’s face whenever he feels like it. Still, this is new territory for a league to be judging goalkeepers as such.

MLS must decide what is and isn’t a dangerous play. Personally, I am more worried about Frei’s collision with Dwyer than Konopka’s low challenge. 1v1 situations are easy to avoid for attackers as they can see the goalkeeper approaching and can time their jump to avoid injury. Dwyer, on the other hand, has a hard time knowing when Frei is about to Neuer-ize him. Frei’s motion, while again should be commended for being as safe as it was, is still near the head area and really risking a concussion. Konopka’s slide is common yet Frei is explosive and hard to time as opposition.

Is this good for MLS?

Well it comes down to where you want to land as the style of goalkeeping has been fairly aggressive in tight scenarios for a hundred years or so. I do not buy into the “protecting goalkeepers” theory as they are smart players and already fairly protected. When a striker slides into a goalkeeper, they are most always penalized correctly. However, it will be hard to change the aggressiveness of goalkeeping into making it safer and less aggressive, regardless of the good intent. If MLS keeps up the trend, we will likely see more scenarios like we did with Josh Saunders against Montreal who is getting stuck in “no man’s land” twice in one game because he is afraid to challenge the ball and risk a penalty. It’s good that MLS is keeping safety in mind with players and seems to be on the forefront of concussion awareness when compared to other leagues, yet the style of goalkeeping will have to adjust.

Whatever your stance, MLS is going to have more headaches with the position for some time until they can draw a hard and clear line on every goalkeeping circumstance. How far can a goalie bring up their knee on a cross? How much can they use their legs on a 1v1 situation? Their arms? Can they still get away with pushing on corner kicks? There are many scenarios MLS will have to cover in the next few years and it doesn’t appear they have any idea of how goalkeepers should act. They just know how they don’t want them to act.

Ending on a lighter note, we’re down to the final six in MLS GOTY Power Rankings.

  1. David Ousted (VAN) - A big plus for Ousted right now, despite being the best performing goalkeeping in MLS, is that he has played every minute for Vancouver this year. You’d think the performance would be enough itself but he doesn’t play for an international team so he’s at a severe disadvantage. If he goes 100% in minutes for the year and keep up the shutouts, he should earn the award.

  2. Nick Rimando (RSL) - He gets the bump for the All-Star game voting and performance. Does this make sense? No, because there have been better goalkeepers this year than Rimando and he has only played about 70% of RSL’s games but the GOTY-less veteran will likely receive bonus points for his years of service.

  3. Stefan Frei (SEA) - He’s still playing great but being on such a star-crowded team it’s hard to stand out. Not to mention the poor form by a team is always reflected on the goalkeeper.

  4. Tyler Deric (HOU) - His rough start to the season has now passed and the buoyant goalkeeper has had two months of outstanding performances, including the save of the year. Yes that is right I said save of the year and it’s something to write home about.

  5. Luis Robles (RBNY) - I am steering away from the xG, I know, but Robles hasn’t had a bad game since April and he can be a big reason why they get to the final this year if everything lines up.

  6. Tim Melia (SKC) - In some ways, it still feels like he’s a backup playing in a starter’s stead yet he’s played over 60% of SKC’s games. He’s quieted a nervous goalkeeping situation in Kansas City and the once Pool Keeper has jump started his career. Depending on what Peter Vermes wants to do with Kempin, Melia will most definitely have his options next year.