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Assessing the American goalkeepers situation with an expert

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SSFC sits down with Bill Reno to talk all things ‘keepers.

MLS: Sporting KC at New England Revolution Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The goalkeeper position is as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July. So as a treat for all of you, let’s talk about the USMNT goalkeeping situation with an expert: Bill Reno of Everybody Soccer

Brendan: Let’s get right down to it. Tim Howard and Brad Guzan: are they too old? Will they feature at the 2022 World Cup (provided the USMNT manages to qualify)?

Bill: *laughs* Gosh, I hope we qualify. You know, it’s a tough question. Ideally, yes, they should have already been replaced by a young goalkeeper but honestly they haven’t really been overthrown in a convincing manner. Despite Guzan’s recent red card, he’s still one of the top MLS goalkeepers and Howard is Howard.

We’ve got some time for before next qualifier so anything can happen. I don’t want to rule out a hard yes or no at this point but if they’re still vying for minutes in the 2022 cycle, we’re in serious trouble.

It’s interesting that you say that nobody has taken up the position. For a while, it looked like Ethan Horvath was really on an upswing, but he fell behind at Club Brugge and only recently made his return to the lineup. Bill Hamid has struggled for minutes in Denmark. Zack Steffen is playing in MLS which is good, but generally means he will have to perform at a comparatively higher level to stand out. William Yarbrough is… fine? Who do you see as the young front-runner who could supplant the old guard?

It was very odd seeing Goal.com name William Yarbrough as the top American goalkeeper in their starting XI for players playing abroad. But unfortunately the reality is no American goalkeeper succeeded overseas this last season. So your limited list is both accurate and telling in a lot of ways.

There are still a lot of question marks out there. Both Hamid and Horvath have a lot to prove this next season, and I think they’ll both be given the chance to, to be honest. You can do whatever you want in MLS but once you jump to another league, you’re starting over, in a sense. You have to prove to your new coach, teammates, fans and everyone that you’re worth the investment. Otherwise you’re out and they’ll find someone new, as Horvath is experiencing right now.

Right now it’s Horvath and Steffen leading the pack for me. Some people want to throw young Klinsmann’s name in mix or even a younger goalkeeper, which is fine I suppose, but realistically we want a polished goalkeeper by 2022, not an emerging one. Some dark horse candidates could be Abraham Romero, who is a very good Mexican-American goalkeeper leaning heavily Mexico at the moment, but as we all know players can flip out of nowhere. Alex Bono has received some well-deserved press but I’m a little skeptic he can jump to the number one spot. Matt Turner, Richard Sanchez, and Tyler Miller will all be (ideally) at their peaks by 2022 but have only recently found good form in MLS, so the jury is still out on them.

Four years is a very long time. Who knows what will happen by then? Perhaps Klinsmann the Younger will solidify his spot in the Bundesliga or Romero will flip back to the USMNT. As everyone knows, goalkeepers work on a different, extended timeline compared to field players. In my amateur opinion, I see someone disciplined with positioning and reliant on technique like Horvath improving with age, while the more athletic shot-stoppers will decline with age. But maybe the USMNT -- with its back line seemingly in a constant state of flux - needs shot stoppers and not box controllers.

“Klinsmann the Younger” *laughs* I like that a lot. Yeah, trying to find the right fit is tough, especially when there are so many moving pieces. How many times did the backline change during the last qualifying cycle?

At this level, everyone is a good shot stopper. I think that’s a little bit of a misnomer, calling someone that, as if there are bad shot stoppers out there that are contending for the starting spot. And obviously it’s not a binary decision with shot stoppers and box controllers - not that you’re saying that - but I do think there is something to be said about a goalkeeper who wants to control his box. Both Horvath and Steffen are known for not only being passive on their line but also not being great in the air. You look at a goalkeeper like Jon Busch, who is 5’7”, I believe, and he does a better job of handling crosses than guys over six feet. So I wouldn’t say the starting USMNT needs to be a great at handling crosses, but if they’re not, there is probably another hole in their game, to be honest.

It’s a massive mental test to handle incoming crosses, much more than it may look. And if a goalkeeper hasn’t conquered that challenge, it’s not rare to see them struggle in other high-intensity situations. I think we’ve seen that with Horvath with his recent fall from grace. You look back at the Portugal game where he Robert Green’d a goal away and it’s not a technical issue, it’s a mental one. And hopefully he’s recouped from the error and developed appropriately, but personally I’m tired of seeing USYNT products not know how to approach aerial challenges. So, a bit long winded, but can I answer “all the above” on what the starting USMNT goalkeeper needs? *laughs*

So what should fans be looking for when evaluating national team keepers? Can we judge them purely by the mistakes they make (since a keeper is at his or her best when you’re barely noticing the work they do) and how many mistakes does it take for one to be considered fragile? What can a layman observe from watching a match?

Yeah those are really great questions and very hard to answer succinctly. Any fan of any MLS team thinks their goalkeeper should be given a chance with the USMNT. From Montreal to Orlando City, there is a case to be made. And typically it’s based off a very undisputable and unquantifiable aspect. “I think they’re a really good leader” or “Their composure just really impresses me.” And there’s no real arguing those points. How could someone, ya know?

The one thing people can hopefully agree on is consistency is key with goalkeeping. You’ve got to be able to cover what’s your and occasionally pull a save out of your ass. If you’re on highlight reels every week but leaking goals, you’re no better than the average goalkeeper. Ideally we would have some sort of statistic that fans could rely more on but everywhere you look - shot percentage, goals against average, expected goals saved - it’s only a piece of the puzzle. I think that would help a lot of fans but we’ll have to wait on that.

As for watching the game, I would suggest fans analyze goalkeepers by how they handle the unfamiliar. Most goals aren’t conceded off the classic shot atop the box. You know, that drill everyone did in high school? Some goals come from there, but very few. So how does a goalkeeper handle a deflection? Or a 1v1? Or a crowded box? Can they find solutions - no matter how unorthodox - and make it work? The goalkeepers who can have a good chance at succeeding at the next level. So some great examples would be Tim Melia and Matt Turner. It’s why they were successful despite really little experience. Both goalkeepers have this immense hunger and will-power to “make it work”. There should be a little bit of scrappiness to goalkeepers. If everything is clean cut, they’re either the best in the world or struggle with making a save on a “cold, rainy night in Stoke”, as I have heard from FIFA 18.

You hate this question; I’m going to ask it anyway. Based on the specifications you just gave, who is the number one right now and who, in your opinion, is the number one in 2022? Give the people what they want.

*laughs* No, no that’s fair. I think the variety in answers is, again, really telling of the environment we’re in. How many countries argue over a dozen names for starting goalkeeper of their national team. It’s not ideal, I’ll say that.

Okay so right now I would still start Tim Melia. I say “still” because he’s been my number one for a year now. You watch him in goal, he has a great balance of realizing that there is no guarantee that he will receive another game, yet he isn’t crippled by the anxiety of the position. It’s a wonderful, rare blend that produces some really wonderful moments.

And for 2022… if I’m trying to predict the starter… sheesh it really could be a dozen goalkeepers. I really want Horvath to be good enough to take the position because I think he has a chance to be a great goalkeeper, not just a good one. If I could get Abraham Romero back in the red, white, and blue, I’d pick him. But I understand he’s likely not an option. I’ll guess I’ll take Steffen. I think he’s the most favored in the organization and he’s had some really positive moments with Columbus. Horvath has a lot of ground to cover in the boss’ eyes.

Tim Melia, number one on your April 2018 ranking of American goalkeepers and the 2017 MLS Goalkeeper of the year with zero caps, is an interesting choice. Maybe he’ll make his debut in the near future.

I think a big aspect of the USMNT not qualifying for 2018 that most people have missed was that players like Melia really lost their chance at playing for the US. He would have to be in the discussion to start in Russia with how up-and-down Howard, Guzan, Steffen, Horvath and Hamid are playing right now. It’s basically how Herculez Gomez got on the 2010 squad. He got hot at the right time and there wasn’t really anyone to challenge him. Now everyone has already moved on to the 2022 cycle, understandably so, but personally, I think there’s a good argument that he’ll go down as the greatest uncapped American goalkeeper of all-time.

And let’s end things with that incredible superlative. Thanks, Bill. Hopefully we all learned a little more about goalkeeping.

No, thank you! Always happy to talk a little goalkeeping!

You can find Bill’s work at EverybodySoccer.com (https://www.everybodysoccer.com/).

His podcast (Everybody Soccer) recently released its third episode. Find it on iTunes.

Follow him on Twitter at @letsallsoccer.