cover photo by Andy Mead
The 2017 MLS Draft wrapped up last week and teams are racing to fill out their varsity roster, as well as sorting out who will spend the year with their USL affiliate. Depending on how much they want to stock up, each team is needing anywhere from three to six goalkeepers. The past month has seen scouting reports, projections, and several write-ups for recent senior graduates and possible roster signees, but for all the fanfare surrounding the rookies, it's no secret it wears off quickly.
Already we've seen two goalkeepers from the 2016 class - Ryan Herman and Chris Froschauer - be dropped by the team that drafted them without much of a word about it. I suppose "sophomore season" narratives aren't as engaging to readers but perhaps there are better options for MLS teams finding a goalkeeper.
MLS's Search for Starting Goalkeepers
Over the last twenty years multiple teams have brought in an older goalkeeper from Europe or South America. Goalkeepers are known for their longevity so signing a goalkeeper late into his career can still give the team four to five years to work with. There's no denying how excited fans get when they hear marquee names attached to the league, like the ongoing rumor of Iker Casillas coming over.
The disappointing reality is that MLS teams simply can't (or shouldn't) chase elite goalkeepers at this time. If salary cap or designated player rules get tweaked in the future, MLS teams might be able to spend more freely on the last line of defense. Until then, it doesn't make sense for MLS to spend millions on a position that could conceivably make zero meaningful contributions in a game. There's a reason why there has only ever been one designated player that was a goalkeeper, and it just happens to be the most iconic American goalkeeper of all-time.
Alternatively, every team would love to sign a homegrown goalkeeper and develop him to the point where he eventually takes over as their starter. There are several incentives for signing a young prospect. Fans are always buzzing over an academy player joining the first team, there is no salary cap hit if a player is under a homegrown contract, and signing a player that young gives the team more control over the player's development. Or so we would think. The truth is homegrown goalkeepers have been scarce since their beginnings, with the league only signing 11 since 2008.
As of right now, there are no signs that teams will start signing more goalkeepers as HGPs. Currently they're more than content to let them develop in the college game. Some MLS teams will even push for young players to sign with their USL affiliate, in order to not have to pay more with an MLS contract, even if it doesn't count against the salary cap.
Some teams have looked abroad to sign a young goalkeeper, also at a low price. New York City signed Norwegian YNT goalkeeper Eirik Johansen back in 2015 as a 22 year old and LA Galaxy also signed Clément Diop, a 23 year old French goalkeeper last year. However these are less seen than homegrowns, due to the numerous difficulties in bringing in a foreigner at such a young age.
While some are quick to dismiss the college draft, at the end of the day it's the best cost-effective route for getting goalkeepers into the league. Foreigners (that are worth bringing in) are going to cost more than an American goalkeeper. Vancouver's Danish goalkeeper David Ousted makes $360,000 while Tim Melia is only at $150,000, yet no one would say Ousted is twice the goalkeeper as Melia. Even if your starter is not going to be an American, you will need to save money on the backup, which likely will be a domestic goalkeeper from the college game.
It should be noted that there are some examples of college grads making it into MLS that aren't American - most notably Andre Blake (UConn, Jamaica) and Bouna Coundoul (Albany, Senegal) - but most will be domestic players. In fact if a college grad isn't American, it's all the more unlikely for a team to use an international slot on a player that's not going to see the field for some time.
Getting the Most Out of the College Game
For the rest of the article, this document is referenced. I listed every SuperDraft pick, combine invite (dating back to 2003), Generation Adidas signing, and homegrown goalkeeper. Some fun stats are scattered throughout the doc.
The first question we need to answer is about the draft's relevancy. Is the draft merely there to fill out the roster or can it produce starters in the league as well?
Splitting the league's all-time goalkeeper pool into two camps, we start to see how important American development has been for MLS goalkeepers. Only 14% of all MLS starts have been from a goalkeeper who wasn't draft-eligible. These are mostly foreigners who played in another country, although there are some Americans skipped the draft to go pro (Friedel and Keller, for example). The other 86% of starts have been from draft-eligible prospects (college grads, Generation Adidas, and homegrown players). Again, the cost-effectiveness of the college game has played a large part in the league's goalkeeper history. Interestingly enough, 25% of starts have come from undrafted - but could have been drafted - goalkeepers, meaning that undrafted goalkeepers have almost been twice as involved in the league as imported talent.
Knowing there is talent in every draft class, now we are left wondering just how productive the draft is for teams. It's always tricky to predict who will or won't be a potential starter but clearly some teams have done better than others. For example, New England being unable to convert nine prospects into anything worthwhile isn't good. Sporting Kansas City and Colorado have also struggled to find a good fit as well. (See figure 1)
One starting point is comparing MLS starts of young prospects versus undrafted goalkeepers. For this exercise, goalkeepers like Jorge Campos or Brad Friedel will not be included because they weren't draft eligible. (See figure 2)
Looking at the first few years, MLS was getting it right for the most part. The inaugural draft missed some notable keepers with Scott Garlick (237 appearances), Pat Onstad (223), Mike Ammann (125), and Marcus Hahnemann (70) but after that, only Joe Cannon (342) and Preston Burpo (57) made waves in the league.
The main reason is likely that MLS only had 10-12 teams for the first decade, so they only had to scout the best of the best. There wasn't a need to be thorough because there was only so much room for goalkeepers. The best goalkeepers stood out in college and that was all that mattered. Teams held only two goalkeepers (around 20-25 goalkeeping spots in the league), as opposed to now where teams will field two to three times as many, with USL affiliates bolstering the number. As MLS started to expand, more slots started to open up to the point where we now see ten goalkeepers being selected in the 2017 draft.
It's too early to say the fate of the last four classes, but we can start to see the how after 2003, overlooked goalkeepers started to trickle in. Perhaps the most bizarre year was 2008, when incoming players combined for zero appearances. Folklore legends Josh Lambo (U17, U20 starter), Dominic Cervi (USMNT call-up), and Brian Edwards (Wake Forest standout and NCAA Champion) were all outplayed for the likes of Tim Melia (Division II Lynn University, 56 appearances), Joe Nasco (Division III Birmingham-Southern, 4), and Lance Parker (Missouri State, 4).
Even through expansion and additional roster spot openings, the draft has showed that it can still produce the desired talent despite teams regularly missing it.
Click here for more stats on goalkeeper prospects.
Press Doesn't Equal Success
It's an odd to see goalkeepers that are good enough for MLS go untouched. Surely teams would notice if someone could cover the admittedly large gap from college to the professional game. What's even more odd is comparing how heralded goalkeepers don't fare that much better than the table scraps.
Counting the appearances between combine invites (and even throwing in homegrowns, GAs, and first round picks) versus every other goalkeeper that could be drafted (again, leaving out Campos, Friedel, and others), it's only 53-47% in favor of goalkeepers who are receiving media attention. There are actually more combine washouts (supposedly the cream of the crop) than goalkeepers who are overlooked yet make it into the league (43-33).
In the first decade, MLS could simply rely on word of mouth for the best goalkeepers coming out of the college game. Now that more teams are vying for the best goalkeepers - and more are getting selected in the draft - teams can't expect the press or the combine to do their research for them.
The touted goalkeepers don't end up fairing that much better than the rest of the bunch. Dating back to 2003, the current combine invite has a median career game appearances of zero. Still, some teams are confident in just accessing the four to six goalkeepers invited to the combine.
So How Important Is the College Draft?
Incredibly, but that doesn't mean the press surrounding the draft is equally valuable. The college game isn't at the point where teams can just throw a dart at a wall and find a starting goalkeeper. 76% of combine invites get drafted yet only 29% of combine invites end up being a success within the league. Even worse, only 18% of prospects end up being a success for a given team, meaning teams are moving on too quickly moving on from their draft picks.
MLS's goalkeeping future is hard to predict. For teams trying to get the most out of their money, the emphasis should be on the academy to develop their goalkeepers. However, the majority of teams aren't as patient and resort to battling the rest of the league to find a promising goalkeeper in the draft. Perhaps we will see teams be more creative in how they bring in goalkeepers but that will likely be dependent on rule changes. Until then, it seems like the landscape isn't going to change and neither is the pipeline for American goalkeepers.
If teams aren't willing to craft their own goalkeeper, they have to do something to give themselves an advantage over their competitors. We know there is talent in the college game, it's just a matter of finding it early and not years after they graduate. As we enter 2017, teams are starting to separate themselves as to those who are content with listening to the noise, and those who know that finding a young goalkeeper starts before January.