By Bill Reno (@letsallsoccer)
The latest drama to break in the American goalkeeping scene was centered squarely on Jesse Gonzalez. After a will-he-won’t-he back and forth that is only rivaled by Pam Beesly and Jim Halpert, Gonzalez has officially tied to the US Men’s National Team. The lovestory dates back to 2015, when he first played for Mexico’s U20s, then received an invite to a USMNT camp, only to drop out of the camp, admitting he was leaning towards Mexico, then ultimately switching to the US last month for his final decision.
It’s been a whirlwind for Gonzalez over the last two years but chances are he isn’t going to be competing for the starting spot until after the 2018 World Cup. Simply with his exclusion from this year’s Gold Cup roster it seems like Gonzalez’s time with the national team will start farther down the line. Hypothetically he could be a Julian Green-esque addition but for a player who has only recently started playing consistently for an MLS side, it’s most likely next cycle. Looking at the rest of the group, only a handful of goalkeepers are truly in the running for a trip to Russia.
The two shoe-ins are Tim Howard and Brad Guzan. There are arguments for and against both goalkeepers but ultimately it’s 50-50 and Bruce Arena has characteristically remained coy about the whole thing. For fans, it essentially comes down to which American goalkeeper you believe is overrated, as both have noticeably dropped off over the last three years, but it seems fans typically only admit that one of them is not as good as they once were.
The fight for the third spot is a toss up between Nick Rimando, Bill Hamid, Sean Johnson, and Ethan Horvath. Arena has historically favored an older third string goalkeeper, working under the idea that if a third string goalkeeper was called upon a veteran player would handle the extreme scenario better than a prospect would. While I would personally rather have Horvath earn the spot, it’s anyone’s guess who will make the roster spot that is most likely to not make an appearance on the field.
Looking ahead to 2022, Howard, Rimando and Guzan will be on their way out, if not already retired, leaving prospects entering their peak years. Let’s walk through the 2022 candidates and see what they need to do to make the jump in their career. The list below is not exhaustive as we should always remember that USYNT alumni are given a lifetime pass to the USMNT player pool, regardless of recent performance.
Goalkeeping Candidates for the 2022 World Cup Cycle
(And What They Need to Work On)
Ethan Horvath - Horvath needs a strong year at Club Brugge. He’s on an extremely high track right now with how fast his career has moved and a step backwards now might take a while to recover from. Horvath doesn’t have the luxury of sliding into a comfortable MLS side but instead is heading straight into Champions League play in less than a month. It looks like they’re making moves to set Horvath up to be the number one for next season but if the pressure is too much now, making a run at the USMNT number one spot seems unlikely.
Zack Steffen - Steffen hasn't been great in the air and has shown signs of some improvement but not enough to make fans feel comfortable. For whatever reason, USYNT thought this wasn't a big enough issue to address any time over the last four years. Steffen’s wide set position makes it tough for him to move laterally and is why Crew fans have probably noticed more skate saves from Steffen, as well as dives where Steffen is actually stepping away from the shot.
It’s akin to Howard’s approach but Howard managed to overcome the unconventional approach by being a world class player. It’s not impossible to overcome, but it’s not a technique goalkeeping coaches try to instill in their players.
Jesse Gonzalez - Even for casual viewers, it doesn't take long to notice Gonzalez’s chaotic style in goal. Simply flipping through his most recent game with DC United you get a sense of how Gonzalez plays.
They’re not great goals and feel free to use the old quip “well, every goalkeeper is going to mess up now and then” but it’s clear that Gonzalez’s style isn’t finely tuned. His feet are too slow and too out of sorts to consistently be making the plays he needs to, as seen on both these goals. His upper body is ready to move, but his feet aren’t on the same page. Similar to Steffen, if a player is going to pass on technical ability, they have to be really good at everything else and Gonzalez isn’t quite there at the moment.
Perhaps FC Dallas could develop Gonzalez’s game, as he still has many years ahead of him. Unfortunately that seems unlikely as FC Dallas hasn’t truly developed a goalkeeper since the turn of the century with Matt Jordan. If Gonzalez is going to take his game to the next level, he may need to leave Frisco.
Zac MacMath - Let the man play. MacMath was thrown into a dumpster fire when he first joined MLS and hasn’t been trusted since. The time on the bench has probably been a blessing in disguise, as MacMath has been able to recoup from the shellshock he received for three straight seasons. Spending time as second string has clearly had an impact on MacMath, who possesses more poise in goal while still keeping a sense of urgency in his step. If MacMath can regain a starting spot, there should be a noticeable transformation in his style.
Bill Hamid - The DC men just need to get healthy. Hamid hasn’t looked 100% since the start of the 2017 season and actually adopted a more frantic play style that left him unable to take his goal kicks whenever he played Atlanta earlier this year. His hands are a mess this year and it’s clear to see the frustration on his face when he lets in soft goals. Hamid is continually cited for his potential but for a goalkeeper who turns 27 in November, he probably needs rest more than consistent games.
Eric Klenofsky - If Klenofsky was good enough for Everton to fly him out, he’s worth not writing off solely from him taking time to get healthy. He’s only made one appearance in USL action this year due to MCL issues and don’t be surprised if that’s the only one in 2017. But check back in five years and he’s almost guaranteed to be at a different level.