By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 28, 2012) US Soccer Players – If you've paid any attention at all to Major League Soccer this season, you might have noticed what we'll politely refer to as 'creative' goalkeeping decisions. Once upon a time, MLS was a league where a team had to work at it to have an unreliable goalkeeper. Sure, everyone makes the occasional mistake, but most of the time it took more than the keeper misplaying the ball to get a goal in MLS.
This season, it seems like goalkeeping should be the first item for most teams, yet that works against something that is taken for granted in Major League Soccer. Namely, that you don't have to spend on goalkeepers because of a deep pool of available players capable of doing the job. Paying significant money by MLS standards for a goalkeeper has always been the exception. Any other position on the field is a more likely target of designated player money.
It's this stubbornness to spend that runs hand-in-hand with a downturn in the fortunes of the goalkeeping pool. Colleges aren't producing enough MLS-ready goalkeepers to fill obvious needs and most teams aren't willing to bring in goalkeepers from outside MLS. The result is attrition, with the handful of league-tested and established goalkeepers growing smaller through retirement.
We've seen some odd choices already this season when it comes to goalkeepers. LA got rid of an exception, a CONCACAF international with proven talent. Donovan Ricketts didn't last long in Montreal, swapping an expansion team for Portland with Troy Perkins heading to the Impact. That level of goalkeeper should be all but untouchable in MLS, certainly not swapped for each other.
Perkins in particular is almost a case study in how MLS clubs can't get out of their own way when it comes to the goalkeeping position. Returning to DC after proving his game at Valerenga, Perkins ended up in a similar scenario to one he'd already been part of during his first stint as an MLS goalkeeper. United has been unafraid of making it complicated in sticking with a starter. Nick Rimando's time there ended similarly to Perkins. In fact, it was Perkins that was part of a multiple season struggle to establish one or the other as DC's #1. Both players eventually needed an out to salvage their reputations, and both got it with other MLS teams by showing they should be starting.
That's become one of Major League Soccer's clichés, toying with the goalkeeping depth chart and only succeeding in making things more difficult. Goalkeeping isn't supposed to be done by committee and depth can create its own problems. Granted, covering for injuries is important, but there's too much temptation when you know your backup is fully capable of doing the job. It's tough for any goalkeeper to thrive when he knows a blown save or two is enough to start the coaching staff thinking about making a change.
Confidence is worth more than taking immediate action. For coaches, the importance of the long view is part of the job. The occasional howler is part of the deal, as true at Premier League level as it is here.
Once upon a time, if you wanted to find a future MLS Best XI goalkeeper all you needed to do was check the Metrostars' bench. MLS is still in a scenario where players thought of as career backups get an opportunity somewhere else and show they should've been starting all along. It makes things that more difficult in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the League's goalkeeping pool.
The underrated goalkeeper in MLS is almost a given. That's true even for established keepers whenever a club decides it's time to tinker. For some reason, when it works for one club it seems to justify the choices at all the others. The one success out of several attempts takes over the story. Enough MLS teams seemed to have learned the odds are against them here. Destabilizing the goalkeeping corps hasn't been as common in 2012. Instead, it's been replaced by what looks like a lack of choices. This didn't just happen. It's a problem years in the making that was all but ignored in the era where another team's backup - available at a sizeable discount - could become your team's starter.
Combining that old MLS notion that it's not worth spending on goalkeepers with multiple years of expansion, MLS teams are now playing with limited options. That turns savable shots into points on the board, shifting the balance between offense and defense that speaks to overall quality.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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