By Bill Reno (@letsallsoccer)
It’s hard not to have a love-hate relationship with the MLS offseason. On one hand, we get to talk about goalkeepers more often. (A massive plus for anyone.) Typically the narrative wraps up a year-long performance in one or two sentences - “Goalkeeper X will look to build off of last year’s success by relying on his shot stopping and distribution skills.” - but that’s hardly a problem considering the larger headache that resurfaces this time of year. Every January we hear about an unnamed MLS team being linked to a foreign goalkeeper. We just had one happen last week, with a “lucrative offer” apparently on the table for a German goalkeeper.
It’s hard to know how much weight to put behind rumors as these sort of things pop up all the time, with perhaps the most ridiculous level of it being Tim Howard’s move to the Rapids being leaked because of his Instagram activity. And while rumors are a lot of fun to hash over at the water cooler or Xanga comment section, there’s a lingering question with how MLS approaches its goalkeeper position: just how excited should we get about foreign goalkeepers joining the league?
To journey down this dark and goalkeeper-heavy conversation, we need to look at the league’s history with foreign goalkeepers. We’ll start by drawing up a list of non-American goalkeepers that have played at least 10 games in MLS. For this list, we’re looking at goalkeepers who are either not American or did not have a significant portion of their development come from the states. For these reasons, Stefan Frei (UC Berkley), Andre Blake (Connecticut), and Bouna Coundoul (Albany) are excluded from the list for playing collegiate ball prior to joining MLS. Richard Sanchez and Jesse Gonzalez are also excused, as they have played in the US for the majority of their lives.
The point of the list is not to draw any conclusions of which nation produces the best goalkeepers (we wouldn’t just be looking at MLS goalkeepers if that was the case, clearly), instead, we’re trying to gauge the league’s success in importing talent.
There are another dozen or so goalkeepers with less than ten appearances in the league, most recent ones including Raïs M’Bolhi, Jorge Rodrigo Bava, Luis Marin, Julio Cesar, John Alvbage, Eirik Johansen, and Luis Lopez. But of course Carlo Cudicini ranks bottom of the list.
Needless to say, it’s a fairly underwhelming list. The fact that only fourteen foreign goalkeepers have managed to play just one full season’s worth of games should be a red flag of sorts. How come teams can’t find a consistent netminder from overseas?
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasoning why foreign goalkeepers haven’t been successful here. One would think with so many clubs across the world, MLS could pick up a reputable goalkeeper with ease, but that has hardly been the case. MLS rarely brings in a top goalkeeper from (insert country here). Instead, it’s typically one who has struggled to catch on in their own domestic league. Sometimes it works out, sure, but other times there’s a reason why clubs have passed on the player before arriving to MLS. At the end of the day, if the goalkeeper was really skilled, its domestic league would be vying with multiple offers to keep the player ashore, not allowing the goalkeeper to walk for free.
Of course the counterargument is that the average foreign goalkeeper is going to be better than the best out-of-work American goalkeeper. However, looking at the most recent MLS Western Conference final, it’s a hard sell to make. Jeff Attinella and Tim Melia were the last standing goalkeepers in the conference despite MLS teams opting to go with foreign goalkeepers throughout their career over them. In fact the entire 2018 playoffs didn’t feature one goalkeeper from the aforementioned list. The playoffs were completely dominated by American-developed goalkeepers, in spite of the recent expansion waves. That’s doesn’t mean American goalkeepers don’t fail in MLS, but let’s just say there’s a reason why 53 of the top 60 goalkeepers in all-time appearances were developed in America.
Admittedly, it’s tough to not sound like an American exceptionalist when diving into this. While deep down I would love to don a “MAKE AMERICAN GOALKEEPING GREAT AGAIN” hat, there’s a universal agreement that there are certainly better goalkeepers across the world, with a few gracing MLS’s doorsteps. We’ve had some wonderful, unique goalkeeping from Jorge Campos to Jimmy Neilsen, two vastly different players who both elevated the position in the league during their tenures.
The issue is not from where but how the league is approaching the position. Routinely MLS teams attempt to cut corners by getting a goalkeeper on a free transfer. Except for rare cases, good players must be bought outright. While this may sound like a sneaky strategy, the money teams save on the front end is negated by foreign players’ higher salaries and/or the player actually being a detriment to the team, as so many have.
Teams understandably have the right to bring in the best player possible, whether American or not. However the scouting process for cheap foreigners routinely ends up disappointing. Bringing in an aging, out-of-work goalkeeper isn’t a formula for success. Snatching up other leagues’ backups doesn’t return a high yield either. These are penny wise, pound foolish tactics.
If teams want a solid foreign goalkeeper, they’re likely looking at a $500,000-$1,000,000 transfer fee. Teams that try to cut corners where the rest of the world does not aren’t going to be successful. It’s not MLS 2.0 anymore. Teams must either spend more for higher talent - like they so freely do for the other positions on the field - or scour the USL for better players, and there certainly are some. Otherwise, the route of picking up other leagues’ leftovers will only make the list of failed foreign goalkeepers continue to grow.