cover photo belongs to Craig Mitchelldyer/Timbers.com
There are few uplifting stories from MLS's goalkeeping group this year. Several established veterans had off years and while the league will boast of getting national team call ups from the US (ranked 24th in the world), Jamaica (75th), and New Zealand (116th), the season is one to forget. This comes on the heels of Kasey Keller's article that was critical of the league's goalkeepers, following a poor goalkeeping performance in the 2015 MLS Cup.
2015 was actually a positive display for MLS goalkeepers when you survey the entire season. Luis Robles and David Ousted had wonderful years - Ousted still should have won Goalkeeper of the Year - and Bill Hamid took another positive step forward in his development. Further down the card a number of goalkeepers had strong seasons in net. Tim Melia, Stefan Frei, Steve Clark, and Evan Bush all had respectable years while younger goalkeepers like Joe Bendik and Jesse Gonzalez showed they were finally gaining traction with the league. It was a good year that unfortunately ended in an awful manner with Steve Clark's blunder in the first minute and, the less remembered, Adam Kwarasey's poor clearance that led to Columbus' loan goal. It seems the MLS Final was only a foreshadowing of what the next season had in store for fans.
Earlier this week MLS released the nominees for the 2016 Goalkeeper of the Year Award, yet again furthering the illegitimacy of the award by listing three unqualified goalkeepers. To no surprise, Andre Blake finished in the top three solely for being good at one aspect of goalkeeping: extension saves. Across the board, he is average, if not below, in every other part of goalkeeping. He will develop as a goalkeeper, there's no getting around that, but voters are rewarding Blake for an action that is done one in every three or four games while disregarding the fact that he routinely misplays a number of situations. He will be a fine goalkeeper in years to come, but he's not there yet.
The second nominee was the 2015 Goalkeeper of the Year winner, Luis Robles. Robles earns the nod from a combination of being last year's winner and his team finishing first in the East, not from his actual contributions to his team. Robles has been and will continue to be a good goalkeeper, but when you look at the type of goalkeeper the Red Bulls needed in 2016, it wasn't Robles. Not all goalkeepers are alike and not every team needs the same type of goalkeeper. Some teams want goalkeepers great in the air, others want them great with their feet. The 2016 Red Bulls needed a goalkeeper who can handle scramble and 1v1 situations, simply due to the fact that their defense continually let their goalkeeper out to dry. Unfortunately for Robles, those situations are not his strengths. Robles is a good goalkeeper, on a good team, but did not have a good year because he was routinely put outside his comfort zone, which is something that's impossible for current voters to distinguish.
Lastly, Tim Howard completes the list in possibly the most nonsensical nomination. He played a total of 17 games (only half the season), finished 19th in total saves in the league, and was arguably the second most important goalkeeper on the Rapids.
Three goalkeepers on three good teams, none of which have a decent reason to be in the running for the award. You could make an easy case for Jake Gleeson, who had a wonderful season that almost sparked a playoff run for Portland. If a voter wouldn't want to reward him after a DUI, it's understandable, but there's still Bill Hamid (another positive step forward), Nick Rimando (set some sort of record this year), Stefan Frei (quietly carried Seattle through a very tough season), Steve Clark (best distributor in the game and rebounded nicely from 2015), Tim Melia (gone unnoticed with Sporting's off-year), and Brian Rowe (finally becoming the starting goalkeeper everyone has expected him to be). I wouldn't say any had an outstanding season, but definitely much more respectable than the three named.
How to Vote for MLS' Goalkeeper of the Year Award
It simply doesn't matter this year. I suppose I would vote Howard because he's played the best of the three, even on shortened time, but I would choose a number of goalkeepers over him if given the chance. However it doesn't matter who gets the award this year because Nick Rimando has still yet to receive a GOTY award and likely never will, despite being ironically voted the best MLS goalkeeper of all-time. There is no better way to undermine a seasonal award of excellence when everyone agrees it has never gone to the player that was the best at the position in the league's entire history.
Looking towards 2017, if voters would look at the goals goalkeepers concede - not the saves they make - they would understand a little more of what a worthy goalkeeper would look like. How many goals are being hit in the middle of the net? How many goals are coming from poor passes or spills in the box? How many goals are a result of poor positioning? These are easy questions that a worthy goalkeeper can answer. If it's a good goalkeeper, they are making saves on top of not giving up easy goals. If they're still growing, you will see the flaws in the goals they concede.
The headache of the award could be completely avoided if only goalkeepers were allowed to vote for the award. If it is so hard to coach and mold an elite goalkeeper, why are journalists who have zero knowledge on the subject allowed to say who had a good or bad season? They have no qualifications to say so. Instead of seeking out true, original critiques, MLS turns to writers with no experience to weigh in on the position again and again. Until MLS decides to revamp their voting, the award is solely a popularity contest that recognizes the goalkeeper who has been in the spotlight the most, not the one who is the best.