What do MLS' goalkeeper woes say about the state of the U.S. pipeline?
It has been a brutal few weeks for the unofficial Major League Soccer goalkeepers' union, a spell that has been rife with basic errors by some of the presumed best in the league.
Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, the presumptive No. 3 goalkeeper on the U.S. national team depth chart, has been guilty of several giveaways out of the back that have led directly to goals.
The San Jose Earthquakes' David Bingham, who has also been getting looks with the national team, has endured some horrific moments so far this season. On March 18, he conceded an own goal against Sporting Kansas City on a Soony Saad shot that was going wide, only for him to fumble the ball right through his legs and into the goal. Last weekend against the Houston Dynamo, he missed completely on an attempted punch of a corner kick, which allowed Alberth Elis to score into an empty net.
Reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake hasn't been immune, either. For all the praise New York City FC's David Villa received for scoring from just inside the halfway line back on April 14, the fact remains that no keeper should be beaten from that distance like Blake was. More routine shots have proved problematic as well. Last weekend, Blake coughed up a juicy rebound that the Montreal Impact's Anthony Jackson-Hamel converted for an equalizer that was a gut punch for the Philadelphia Union in a 3-3 tie.
The performances have raised questions about the state of goalkeeping in MLS and, by extension, the U.S. national team. Is the surge in errors simply a statistical anomaly, or is it a broader statement about the level of goalkeeping in the league? How worried should the U.S. be that no heir apparent to Tim Howard and Brad Guzan has emerged?
One man who isn't losing any sleep is U.S. manager Bruce Arena.
"I think you're making an awful lot out of a couple of games," said Arena, himself a former goalkeeper. "Did any attacking players miss a goal this past week or two? I don't think you look at a game and draw all these conclusions. You look at the body of work that players present. You don't look at one game or two games when there's a mistake."
Fair enough. Every goalkeeper, even the best in the world, makes obvious errors at some point, and Rimando in particular seems to have earned some wiggle room. But at what stage do the mistakes pile up so high that it costs a goalkeeper a call-up or even his starting job at club level? Is it four games? Is it more?
"I don't know the exact answer to that," Arena said via telephone. "We follow all these players. We know who they are. We don't think they're mistake-free, but we don't panic over the fact that they made mistakes."
Arena added that as he looks around the league, he sees goalkeepers that he likes. He brought up D.C. United's Bill Hamid, the New England Revolution's Cody Cropper and the Seattle Sounders' Stefan Frei as examples. Orlando City SC's Joe Bendik and Kansas City's Tim Melia have also been solid and at times spectacular in the early going. The New York Red Bulls' Luis Robles was a Goalkeeper of the Year finalist last season and won the award in 2015. Looking abroad, Ethan Horvath, now with Club Brugge of Belgium, has gotten some looks with the national team.
"There's enough guys there, so I'm not as worried as [other people]," Arena said.
Assuming the U.S. qualifies, Howard will be 39 years old when the festivities in Russia kick off, and Rimando will be 38. Guzan will be the relative youngster at 33. Yes, goalkeepers typically have a longer shelf life than field players, but the fact that there are no obvious candidates behind that trio points to a gap in the U.S. goalkeeping conveyor belt.
Granted, for years the U.S. has had no shortage of goalkeeping options. Tony Meola did his bit in the early 1990s. Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel battled for the starting spot on the national team for a decade while enjoying long spells in Europe. When their international careers ended, Howard was the obvious choice to take over.
There isn't one now.
Hamid has proven to be injury-prone. Cropper arrived in MLS with New England after failing to make a breakthrough overseas. All of them lack the pedigree and experience Howard had when he took over. It is perhaps telling that Arena said, "I think Guzan, Howard and Rimando are all goalkeepers that can still be around through the next World Cup."
For Keller, the lack of an obvious successor is due in part to the cyclical nature of the sport.
"I think some of it is we're in a little bit of a lull in development," Keller said via telephone. "It happens, I think, with every country at any time. I think at different times we've probably overachieved in the goalkeeping department that gave us a false confidence at times. Then we think, 'We're always going to have this.' That's not always the case."
Keller admitted, however, that there are additional factors at work. He has noticed that keepers are trained differently now than when he played -- not necessarily for the better.
"We're not developing guys, and technically, we're not doing as well," he said. "I think we went from pressure training, pressure training, pressure training, and we weren't doing anything else. Then we went to this idea of everything has to be about technique and [slowing the pace of training]. I think what we've done is we built guys who could compete mentally, who could go out there and fight for things because they were so used to being beat to hell in their training regimen. Now guys, you can see when they get put under pressure, they crumble. "
That drop-off is visible in MLS. In the mid-2000s, there was a solid base of goalkeepers. In addition to Meola, you had the likes of Joe Cannon, Kevin Hartman and Matt Reis. Guzan was just starting out, as were Rimando and Canadian Pat Onstad. But over time, most of the keepers that comprised this group retired or, in the case of Guzan, moved overseas. These departures coincided with an expansion boom, diluting the talent and experience pool. Keller said this confluence of factors "left a void" while lessening competition for spots.
The large investment in attacking players made by MLS and a comparable lack of investment in goalkeepers has also served to expose some weaknesses in the goalkeeping ranks. In a league in which the average guaranteed compensation is $326,129, the average for goalkeepers is just $158,665.
"As you move up levels -- say from League One to the Championship or the Championship to the Premier League -- the one thing that is constant is you will be punished for your mistakes at the higher levels," Keller said. "The players will see you're out of position. They'll capitalize on rebounds more often.
"Now, when a goalkeeper finds himself out of position and Sebastian Giovinco has the ball, you're going to get scored on, and you're going to look silly. And guess what, when David Villa looks up at midfield and sees you're in a bad position, you're going to get punished."
Add it all up, and you have several factors that are making the level of goalkeeping look suspect.
How much that can change in the short term is debatable. But as the early weeks of the MLS season have shown, form can abandon a player -- or return -- at any time. For certain members of the MLS goalkeepers' union, the hope is that their play will take an upward turn.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.