By Bill Reno (@letsallsoccer)
We’re four weeks into the MLS season and have we learned anything about the goalkeeping crew yet? Tough to say. 2017 brings back some familiar faces while other teams are trying their luck by putting some youth in net. MLS is a tricky league for any rookie to hop into, but goalkeepers specifically need to have a few tools under their belt.
What Kind of Goalkeeper do MLS Teams Need?
The biggest difference from MLS 1.0 and now is the defending. It was no act of chance that Mark Dodd set the record for most saves in a season in 1997 with 191 saves (including postseason). The closest anyone has come to that in the last ten years was Jon Busch at 137 in 2014. The main reason for this was due to the league’s unique rule for the first five years that every player got to take one free shot from 40 yards out and if they made it, the league would sponsor the team’s pizza party. Needless to say not only did this fail, but it was completely made up and not true. However defenses were still very weak in the late 90s, seeing goalkeepers in action more than they should have been. Modern defenses have shored up a lot of gaps, but there’s still a lot of space to explore.
For most teams, a goalkeeper needs to be able to handle a 1v1 situation with confidence. By my count, we've seen 60 1v1s in 35 games. Those situations vary from requiring a fantastic save to letting the striker goof himself into kicking the ball out of bounds. Minnesota seems to be the worst offenders, while Atlanta, FC Dallas, and San Jose do a decent job of not forcing their goalkeeper into those unfavorable situations. But for most of the league, they need a goalkeeper who can compose himself when facing insurmountable odds. Whether it be turnovers in the midfield or defenses that struggle to maintain shape, MLS goalkeepers find themselves in breakaway situations quite often.
The second requirement might not come as a surprise. While we would love for it to be “stellar distribution”, realistically I’ve seen the same goalkeepers repeatedly kick a ball out straight out of bounds on goal kicks multiple times this season. So let’s not kid ourselves, it’s crosses. Similar to 1v1s, goalkeepers possess their own approaches to crossing situations. There’s not a textbook way to handle every kind of cross. There are a lot of variables to take into account and the only litmus test is keeping the ball out of the net. If a goalkeeper wants to hang back on his line, there’s a right and wrong way to do that. If a goalkeeper wants to chase down every cross like a dog greeting the mailman, there’s also a right and wrong way to that too. Whatever the choice, a goalkeeper must hone his craft and not just hope sitting back or running out happens to work out, as young goalkeepers like Zach Steffen and Cody Cropper are finding out.
Goalkeeper Power Rankings
As always, it’s hard to predict where any goalkeeper really sits as MLS’s Goalkeeper of the Year award has a higher correlation with team performance than individual performance. That said, here are 10 that have as good as chance as any.
Joe Bendik - Bendik is starting to turn into the goalkeeper everyone was hoping he’d be. A phenomenal performance against NYC opened the season. The only question now is if he can capture the consistency we’ve all been waiting for.
Tim Melia - Melia is a great example of being able to handle the two previously mentioned traits (1v1s and crossing) with success, and he needs to get into the USMNT discussion. There may not be a better goalkeeper that emulates Tim Howard’s game more closely, and having him in net clearly is a positive influence on the field for whoever is playing in front of him.
Jake Gleeson - Portland is sitting first in the west and they don’t show any signs of slowing. As an added bonus, their goalkeeper is really good and doesn’t seemed distracted by the offseason. He’s picked up where he left off in 2016 without missing a beat.
Andre Blake - I’ve already said a lot about Blake but he’ll probably be in the running again solely for having the prestigious honor of being the starter of the 76th ranked team in the world.
Luis Robles - While fans would like to see him receive call-ups, he is keeping his ironman streak alive by dodging this last pair of World Cup Qualifiers. He’s off to a much better start than last year and Red Bulls are going to contend again this year. Robles will return to GOTY conversation again.
Nick Rimando - Years later, MLS will unironically name the GOTY award the “Nick Rimando GOTY Award” without realizing he never won it.
Stefan Frei - Frei was one of the more consistent pieces to Seattle’s team last year, despite the team’s terrible start to the season. A mild start this year, but it’s a long season and Seattle will undoubtedly make some noise down the line.
Chris Seitz - I saw one voter last year literally rank Seitz in his top three only because FC Dallas finished atop the table. A solid goalkeeper, sure. Should he be in the running for GOTY? Probably not.
Evan Bush - Quietly doing very well for himself. Of all the goalkeepers who have grown over the offseason, Bush leads the pack. It’s early and Montreal could see themselves out of the running sooner than later, but he deserves praise for his hot start.
Tyler Deric - The most chaotic goalkeeper in the league right now. When it works, everyone enjoys watching it. When it doesn’t, well, typically only Houston fans realize it as the Dynamo unfortunately isn’t a huge audience-grabber.