By Bill Reno (@letsallsoccer)
Typically MLS’s spring season is marred by goalkeepers shaking off rust from an extended offseason, but this season fans have witnessed a breath of fresh air when it comes to goalkeeping. First, we've had a number of young goalkeepers far exceed expectations, despite not even being starters last year. Tyler Miller, Matt Turner, and Richard Sanchez were all sitting a bench somewhere last year but have shown the public (and previous employers) why they are worth putting in goal. Luis Robles and Alex Bono have done well in the Champions League, while Sean Johnson and Jimmy Maurer are seeing some resurgence in their careers. It hasn't been all daisies and roses, but compared to previous years, it’s been a blast seeing goalkeepers win games instead of costing their teams points.
On the other side of the coin, goalkeepers like David Bingham, Andrew Tarbell, and Zack Steffen haven’t exactly shown up on the stat sheet in ways they’d like to. All three carry more than their fair share of hype when it comes to the media (Tarbell was deemed a “10-year keeper” before he was even drafted) but today we’re going to focus solely on where Columbus Crew’s Zack Steffen is struggling. This isn't a scouting report per se, as many of us are well aware of the positives behind Steffen’s game, but instead we’ll dive into where he needs to continue to develop and why he owes Columbus 2.82 goals six games into the season.
We’ve all heard it a million times: imagine there is a string tied from the middle of the goal line to the ball. This is a good rule of thumb, but of course like any guideline, there are exceptions. If a defender has cut off a part of the frame, a goalkeeper can cheat to one slide. Or on certain high-reflex situations, a goalkeeper can play the odds instead of the angle. Clint Irwin gives an example of this in MLS’s first (and only?) “Anatomy in a Save”. But one thing that’s been more prevalent this season is goalkeepers overprotecting their front post. Perhaps this is due to the stigma of giving up a goal on the near post (Justin Bryant informs you why protecting the front post is overblown) but regardless, Steffen would behoove himself on fixing his angles. Against Montreal and DC, he was protecting his near post so much that shots slightly away from the middle of the frame were unsaveable.
Goalkeeping is a game of inches, so it’s important to find a balance between extremes. Specifically against Montreal, if Steffen wants to take a half step towards the near post, it’s understandable. But on both goals, he is 1-2 steps off his line. It’s a simple fix, and probably one Crew Goalkeeper Coach Pat Onstad has already covered with him.
One vs Ones
Gone are the days where goalkeepers could rattle strikers by barreling down as fast as they could. Forwards are much more composed on the dribble now than they were even six or seven years ago. At this level, a goalkeeper should look to force the striker into beating them with a good goal instead of gambling on brute force. Against Vancouver, on a play that was ultimately called back, Steffen decides to sprint for a ball he doesn't have any business going for.
Jimmy Maurer had a similar situation (video to the right) but he holds his ground to play a bit of a mind game with his opponent. The striker sees Maurer set up. If he pulls up for a shot, Maurer is ready to go. If he tried to round the goalkeeper, he will have to make a longer route as Maurer has more lateral movement at his disposal. The result in the end is a goal kick with no save for the ex-Cosmos goalkeeper but it’s a great example of controlling the situation and not giving away too much too soon.
A week later, Steffen committed two poor turnovers in the defensive third, with the first one resulting in a goal. Understandably, it’s a frustrating moment for any player to commit such an error. But like the previous situation, a goalkeeper should not let a bad situation become worse. Once again Steffen comes in out of control (too high, in this case) and could have kept Chicago from scoring their only goal in the game had he managed his 1v1 approach better.
Steffen should take hope that brashness following an error isn’t secluded to MLS goalkeepers as Claudio Bravo showed back in October of 2016. However, figuring out how to control strikers in a 1v1 setting takes time. It requires intense mental reflexes, a complete control of the body, and a plethora of reps in varying situations.
In the past I’ve been critical of Tim Howard’s wide stance-approach and in his late stages, it’s clear he’s really struggling now more than ever to create lateral movement for himself. Footwork is a tricky topic as there isn't a clear blueprint on how everyone should move in goal. Some goalkeepers are better suited for certain steps while others position their body weight in different areas. Really, the only rule with footwork is “don’t do what isn't helping you.” (I just made this up, but hopefully you get the point.) If an unconventional approach works for a goalkeeper, then it’s most likely best for them to work with it instead of shoehorning a traditional approach in replace of it.
Before we get into why Steffen would be better suited for a tighter body shape, it’s worthwhile to point out the benefits to a wide stance. It’s common to see infielders in baseball to set up with their legs as wide as possible as they are looking to get low to the ground ASAP and react quicker with their hands. For taller goalkeepers, getting lower to the ground can be extremely beneficial and they don’t always need to move their feet laterally to cover the goal, while shorter goalkeepers rely on more quick footwork.
With all that said, the wide stance isn’t helping Steffen for a few reasons. First, the wide positioning makes it hard to react in a shuffling manner when setting up an extended save (if you have some spare time on your hands, try shuffling sideways with a really wide base, as opposed to shoulder-width). Baseball infielders will turn to sprint after a ground ball but goalkeepers are keen on keeping their shoulders square to the field, which leads us to the second reason why Steffen’s footwork needs a revamp. With a wide stance, it’s extremely difficult to make your first step a positive step. Most times, goalkeepers will have to readjust their footing because their feet are so wide that it’s impossible to move. For example, in the Vancouver game we see two examples where Steffen’s good angle is destroyed by poor footwork.
Another example is against Montreal, where the camera provides a good angle to show just how detrimental a poor first step can limit a goalkeeper’s ability to cover the goal frame. Admittedly the volley is from an incoming cross so Steffen’s momentum is carrying him to his left a little bit, but the point still stands.
In these three examples, Steffen is essentially putting all his power on his back foot (the one farther from the ball) and giving very little to the front foot. The traditional fix to this is the step-and-drive method, nearly what most every goalkeeper does. Alternatively, Oliver Kahn and Tyler Deric have utilized (one to more success than the other) a two foot dived where both legs are pushing off the ground but in a delayed rocking-mechanic (first the back leg, then the front), giving a “hang time” appearance.
There are a number of tools Steffen can decide from in order to fix his feet, but it’s no easy task. Unlike distribution, angle play, or 1v1s, changing one's footwork is changing one of the foundations that is center to nearly every action a goalkeeper does. Additionally a goalkeeper rarely has his or her feet in their eyeline. There are a number of other moving pieces in a play to focus on in addition to unseen objects. Steffen has certainly been able to sort out his feet this season, as he displayed in a huge non-save dive against Giovinco (video to the right), but he hasn't done it with enough consistency yet. It’s why examples of such quick footwork (Tim Melia, ladies and gentlemen) are so impressive, even if it isn't readily noticed by the masses.
When you look at what a goalkeeper needs to be successful in MLS, it's not penalty saving ability, or long distance shot stopping, or distribution, although all those will certainly help. It’s being able to solve an unfamiliar situation. Every week we see another bizarre scramble in the box that a goalkeeper hasn't trained for because the situation is impossible to replicate. However the goalkeepers that are able to prioritize correctly and not get overwhelmed with unfamiliarity are the ones that will succeed, and may find themselves in a higher league in Europe. Steffen’s angle play will get better with time, and we’ll most likely see a more methodical approach to 1v1s, but the foot work is a make-or-break for Steffen in being a good or great goalkeeper. If his footwork is sloppy, he’ll be a fine MLS goalkeeper at the end of the day. But if he can control his movement better to handle more and more unique situations, he could restore American goalkeeping prowess overseas.