2017 MLS Goalkeeping in Review / by Bill Reno

By Bill Reno (@letsallsoccer)

It’s that time of year again. Every October excitement fills the air over fans and media answering the question “who was the best goalkeeper in MLS this year?” Let no fanbase’s optimism come into question, as just about each one thinks their team has one of the best goalkeepers in the league. But the award is a true test only the most recent meritocracy. It forgets the past and rewards the present. To put it more simply, if the MLS GOTY award had a muppet doppelganger, without question it would be the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present from the Muppet Christmas Carol. A goalkeeper could have a constant howler in 2016 but be redeemed through grit and hard work in 2017. A young goalkeeper could be thrust into the limelight and propel their career forward. An aging veteran could finally receive the recognition they've worked so hard for. There are too many fantastic narratives to come to fruition and only one can actualize.

Goalkeepers in the running this year are most likely Tim Melia (Sporting KC), Alex Bono (Toronto), Stefan Frei (Seattle) with Sean Johnson (NYC) and Tyler Deric (Houston) as dark horse candidates. While I don’t completely agree with the line of reasoning, voters’ first criteria are playoff teams and lean heavily on Shield contenders. From there, voters love stats. Despite us not judging centers in basketball solely by their teams’ Points Allowed Per Game stat, there is still a strong correlation between goalkeepers’ performance and their Goals Allowed Average (GAA) for many voters. Usually a sub-1.2 GAA puts a goalkeeper in the right spot, with a save percentage close to 70%. And from there, voters are typically swayed pretty heavily but outside narratives. For example, despite Andre Blake having arguably the worst stats of any goalkeeper in 2016, his high-flying saves and time with the national team in that year’s Copa America tournament really caught the media’s eye. So they gave the young Jamaican the award despite there being a number of much more deserving candidates.

This year there aren't that many strong storylines. Frei ended last year on a wonderful note and that may have rolled over a little bit into 2017. Bono was in goal for most of Toronto’s record-setting run this season and the voters do like young goalkeepers. Johnson has revitalized his career since leaving Chicago, but that’s about it. Falling back on the stats, Melia is so far ahead of other goalkeepers it’s kind of ridiculous. In expected goals saved, Melia is more than seven goals ahead of second place. The next closest goals against average (GAA) to Melia’s .77 is Frei, at 1.09. Melia holds a 78.4 save percentage and Bill Hamid is a distant second place at 74.2.

Personally, Melia is the obvious pick but Frei and Bono had respectable seasons in their own right as well. It’s encouraging to see MLS say that a “glue-sniffing binge” is the only reason why Melia wouldn't receive the award, but there have been more absurd winners in the past. Ultimately I think it’ll come down to Melia, Bono, and Frei (in that order) but it’s the GOTY award and it’s anyone’s best guess as to who is going to win.

One notable goalkeeper excluded from Goalkeeper of the Year discussion is ex-DC United goalkeeper Hamid, who has already signed a contract with FC Midtjylland, a top team in Denmark’s premier league. DC United were originally targeted for not helping Hamid go abroad but Ryan Keefer did a fine job of setting the record straight, pointing out how helpful Ben Olsen and DC United have been in the past when it comes to opportunities abroad.

Fans have been supportive of Hamid’s move but it has definitely raised some eyebrows. For starters, he departed on a free transfer at the end of his contract, leaving United with nothing when he could have easily given the club a huge chunk of money had contract talks not stalled back in April. While he is doing a great service to himself to reach a higher level of play, it is a few years too late. Tim Howard, Kasey Keller, and Brad Friedel all moved overseas before they turned 25 and were quickly phasing into their starting roles by 27 (the average goalkeeper age in MLS). Hamid turns 27 in less than a month and signed a four and a half year deal with Midtjylland, which seems to imply that he plans on being at the Danish club for more than one year, although another transfer is not completely out of the question.

If fans are expecting the Nordic move to be a remedy to move Hamid into the number one position for the 2022 World Cup, then they should consider taking another look at the hurdles Hamid has in front of him. Hamid will be pushing 32 by the next World Cup and while goalkeepers can certainly have longer careers, there are just nine goalkeepers over 32 in MLS at the moment and only five of them are starters. For a goalkeeper who has a history of injuries (Hamid has only played 30 games in a season once in his career), it is a tall order to ask Hamid to stick around another five years. If he is still vying for a World Cup spot in 2022, it will be heavily against the odds.