Why MLS Goalkeeping in 2016 Has Been So Dang Bad / by Bill Reno

By Bill Reno (@letsallsoccer)

The slow start for MLS goalkeepers has now dragged into its third month. Some goalkeepers can’t stay healthy and others are being benched simply for not playing well. Some are even resorting to saving shots with their face (see the video to the right). “Saves of the Week” highlights are more of a sigh of a relief that the ball didn't trickle in on each shot. It’s getting so bad, field players are being put into goal. Essentially it’s a goalkeeper apocalypse now and it’s safe to say that in three years the landscape is going to look much different. A minority of teams are - or should be - confident in their goalkeeping situation. Most MLS teams are caught in the bind of having a goalkeeper that isn't sinking the ship but they aren't exactly thrilled with, yet have a goalkeeper that they’re reluctant to completely turn the position over to.

Already we've seen eight teams use two goalkeepers this year, only a few of them out of choice instead of having their hand forced. Despite having an incredibly small and quiet fan base, Portland has switched from one international to another, going from Adam Kwarasey to Jake Gleeson. The decision may seem obvious to the dozens of fans but Kwarasey was brought on, in part, to be a big force in the box. Portland is one of the most crossed on teams in MLS and Kwarasey was supposed to be a large answer to that. Admittedly he is strong in the air and while I wouldn't say he’s the best in the league with crosses, it makes sense why Portland liked him. However, when your goalkeeper can only duck under a free kick (video above) and mistakes start to pile up, the backup is in a tough spot. While he’s 6’4”, Jake Gleeson doesn't bring the physical presence in the air that Kwarasey does. So now the coaches are weighing two sides of the scale. One on end, Gleeson isn't as good as Kwarasey at certain levels while the other side’s argument is pretty much summed up as “He couldn't do any worse.” When the backup is better than the starter, clearly it’s an easy decision to make. But when you’re dealing with a much different goalkeeper - one that wasn't really in the plans at this time - whose highest level of consistent play is USL, it’s tough to rewrite the game plan.

Perhaps a more clear example of this is Steve Clark in Columbus. I wouldn't call him a complete sweeper-keeper, but he’s the closest one to it in MLS. Some fans wanted him out after last year’s final, but who is the answer for needing a goalkeeper to make 40-60 passes a game? So Columbus bites the bullet when things don’t go Clark’s way because he is part of the frontend game design. While some wish it to be, it is not as simple as looking at a top 100 list somewhere on the internet and finding a higher ranked goalkeeper. There are style of plays, decision making capabilities, cohesiveness with the team, mental stability, and communication skills to think about when making a switch.

Colorado and Houston are in the rare situation of being on the opposite end of such a problem. Zac MacMath and Joe Willis weren't supposed to be doing this good and now both teams have (or will have very quickly, in Colorado’s case) two good goalkeepers on their hands. Do they sell one? Which one do you sell? If you’re going to hold on to both, how do you keep both goalkeepers sharp and in tune without freezing out the other one? DC is about to run into a goalkeeper implosion with Bill Hamid and Andrew Dykstra both returning while Travis Worra has been one of the few goalkeepers this year actually holding his own.

If it wasn't clear enough, this is a transition and low point for MLS goalkeeping. The goalkeepers that are just scraping by will be replaced in a year or two and the younger goalkeepers will finally get a chance to start freely or see themselves traded out (see MacMath and probably Sean Johnson). It’s tough to say exactly who stays and who goes because few are playing consistently and most are hard to accurately access moving forward. Are the errors characteristic of the goalkeeper or is it just a bad spell? Who knows so let’s just run to MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Power Rankings. We’re down from ten to nine this month.

1. David Bingham - It’s all about the USMNT bling and Blingham has it. (I’m sorry, please do not stop reading.) He’s actually in a great position where he has his name forever tied to the men’s national team yet most likely won’t miss games for the Copa America because he’s probably fourth or fifth on the depth chart. (Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando, and Ethan Horvath are the others.)

2. Tim Melia - Sporting Kansas City are playing so poorly that they deserve to be called The Wiz for ruining Melia’s inside track to winning the award. He’s a fan favorite and beloved for his comeback story and defying all odds of not having an awful season like the rest of the league.

3. Nick Rimando - I want to preface this with the fact that I don’t like power rankings that have huge swings in the movement. I know that Rimando was not even in my top ten last year but it is a perfect storm for him right now. No one is playing a level above everyone else, Real Salt Lake are somehow rebounding from last year’s disaster of a season, and he has an ace up his sleeve of never winning the award despite being maybe the league’s best goalkeeper ever. If RSL finish top four in the west (they’re currently sitting fourth in PPG), I think Rimando has as good of chance as anyone.

4. Evan Bush - Montreal sit second in the East, which is good, but is also good enough for seventh in the West, which is not good.

5. Clint Irwin - Essentially the same situation as Bush. Neither of the two goalkeepers are playing awful but are being outshined by others. If either goalkeeper went on a tear to lead their team to first, they’d have a good case for earning the award.

6. Brian Rowe - If Rowe could keep Dan Kennedy on the bench he’d probably have a nice salary boost to match his award.

7. David Ousted - The best thing Ousted did this season was not his stop against Gyassi Zardes (which was great) but his heartfelt letter about his mother on mother’s day.

8. Steve Clark - Quietly having a solid season in the midst of Columbus turmoil. I think he’s near the top if not first in Save of the Week nominees. Unorthodox, yes, but for a team that’s averaging one point a game, he’s somehow hanging in there.

9. Andre Blake - Philadelphia probably aren't as bad as many had guessed, and Blake is pretty decent at extension saves so at least he gets to showcase those.