cover photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images
This week Andre Blake was announced as the 2016 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. While Philadelphia has long had a history of poor luck when it comes to goalkeepers, fans should be slow to think their historic goalkeeping woes are completely solved. The award rarely means the winner is the best goalkeeper in the league and Blake needs to improve in several areas moving forward in 2017. Despite this, MLS has largely been focused on how much of the goalmouth Blake can cover.
Admittedly those saves are great and something a number of goalkeepers can't do. However a one minute video does not represent any goalkeeper's season in a complete picture. MLS has done a poor job or presenting a rounded picture of Blake, or any goalkeeper in the league. Front page content is centered around thrilling saves, which makes sense as they're trying to create clickable links. However when it comes to mistakes in the back, the league struggles to find the appropriate accountability. Fans, reporters, and writers are too extreme when witnessing errors from a goalkeeper. They will either paint a goalkeeper's entire season with one mistake or just turn a blind eye. In this case, everyone has ignored Blake's problems in the back.
I know highlighting a goalkeeper's mistakes can be a very divisive issue. Let me say this wasn't an enjoyable experience on my end and it still doesn't tell someone all they need to know about Blake. Viewers should definitely watch any goalkeeper's best saves but also paired with his mistakes. Goalkeepers make mistakes all the time and fortunately a large percentage of them are meaningless. A shanked punt just happens to land in the right spot. A spill in the back harmlessly goes out of bounds for a corner kick that doesn't produce a shot. So while there are excuses to defend Blake's season, there are a few reasons why we need to entertain this angle.
1. Most American journalists don't know what a good goalkeeper looks like. Too many writers don't know how legitimate goals are scored unless it was a complete error on the goalkeeper's part. What does a bad goal in a 1v1 situation look like? What are the mechanics behind a goalkeeper correctly handling a cross? What type of communication should a goalkeeper use with the backline? An overwhelming majority of writers cannot answer those questions. Instead, they laud the athletic goalkeepers while ignoring the consistency others bring to the field. There's a reason the internet blew up over a very fun, exhausting drill with Norwich's goalkeepers yet goalkeeping analysis is just not that interesting. People want to praise goalkeepers who work hard, but not understand what makes one mechanically sound.
2. MLS's Goalkeeper of the Year is rewarded off the wrong criteria. A low goals against average doesn't correlate with a good goalkeeper. It just means the defense as a whole is solid. Finishing atop the conference, or even winning the MLS Cup, doesn't mean the goalkeeper is automatically good. (Portland's starting keeper lasted six months after winning the Cup.) The voters have the wrong set of priorities and unfortunately hold too low of a standard for "Goalkeeper of the Year". Perhaps a better question for voters when evaluating Blake: how many amazing saves would Blake have to make to not only outweigh six minutes of mistakes, but outweigh them to the point where he's the best in the league?
3. The video is not meant to belittle Andre Blake or the city of Philadelphia. Blake turns 26 this month and will likely have a long career ahead of him. He has a lot of advantages in his corner and, like every goalkeeper before him, will continue to grow in his ability. I watched him when he was at UConn and he's grown since then and will most certainly be better next year. But for anyone watching more than just a quick highlight video of Blake, they'd know there's no way getting around the fact that he should not have won GOTY and he shouldn't have been close either.
4. The miscue video is a great chance for anyone to learn more about the position. It may sound thin but anyone will learn more about goalkeeping when watching errors instead of successes. We can learn what needs to be done to fix an issue and why problems exist in the first place.
5. American soccer culture is too soft when criticizing players. While the video will step on a lot of toes, compare the US's approach to criticism to any other top country. Spain, Brazil, Germany are all more than thorough in naming someone the best or calling a player "elite". Again, Blake will be fine down the road as he continues to develop but there is a lot to learn from looking at his season in another light.
There's no need to go through each clip and say what Blake did wrong on this or that play. It's not an all-encompassing mistake video so while people may disagree on certain plays, it's clear he struggles in a number of categories. His footwork in general is sloppy and overly aggressive. This leads to problems on not only crosses but also tight angle shots. He's moving before he knows what he needs to do and the loss prep time stops himself from being able to get set. Just about every game a cross will come in and Blake will run two steps towards the ball then retreat back to the line, instead of simply reading the ball. Overall, his hands were weak this season and he fumbles too many shots, which also goes back to his issue with crosses. On 1v1 scenarios, he hopefully throws his body at the ball instead of calculating high percentage situations. His communication improved over the year but it took much too long for him to start commanding his team. Yet through all of this, MLS wants to reward him as the best.
On a whole, the 2016 MLS season was atrocious for goalkeepers so there it's somewhat understandable to just award it the goalkeeper with the best saves. There were only a handful of great performances this season and anyone saying Blake was the worst in the league would clearly be wrong. Ultimately the GOTY award going to Blake is only a repeating issue when dealing with the award. For example, if Nick Rimando can be awarded MLS's best goalkeeper of all-time and never win the seasonal award, something is not right. Recent years has seen the award end up with a less than deserving candidate more times than not.
A favorable solution on revamping the voting process isn't at hand. Ideally only people who are informed should vote, but drawing that line is impossible. If the league limited it to just MLS goalkeepers voting, we'd start to see some drastically different outcomes. But whatever the solution, we need to get away from voters watching a one minute video of a goalkeeper's saves to start understanding the strengths and weakness of the league's goalkeepers.