cover photo from FIFA.com
After another successful World Cup run for the US U20s, the US fell short in a tightly contested 2-1 loss to Ecuador. Despite this being the third consecutive U20 tournament where the US reached the quarterfinals, the goalkeeping situation left a familiar, unsatisfactory taste for most viewers. Since the turn of the century, American goalkeepers have largely struggled at the youth tournament, if not the professional scene as well. Jonathan Klinsmann and Cody Cropper performed well under par in 2017 and 2013, respectively. Zac MacMath (2011), Sean Johnson (2009), Chris Seitz (2007), Quentin Westberg (2005), Steve Cronin (2003), and DJ Countess (2001) would receive many accolades in their youth but all would go on to have polarizing professional careers. With more goalkeepers sinking than swimming during and after the U20 tournament - 2015 standout Zack Steffen being the rare exception - the problem can be linked to a lack of a consistent identity within the position.
Throughout the history of American goalkeepers, it’s hard to pin down just exactly what makes up an American style. At best, they can be best described as converted basketball players. As many former American goalkeepers pointed out in a previous interview, many looked forward to summer camps as their main chance to hear new information on the position. In spite of no consistent, high-end training environments, the typically multi-sport American goalkeeper would have exemplary hands and possessed a physically dominating athleticism. But the similarities ended there. Looking across the modern era, it’s easy to see that American goalkeepers come in all sorts of molds. Some are short, some are aggressive, some are good with their feet, and some are none of the above. From Steve Clark to Ashlyn Harris to Nick Rimando to Katelyn Rowland, there are a wide variety of styles within the professional goalkeeping scene.
The lack of goalkeeping identity has plagued not only the men’s U20 teams but all aspects of goalkeeping in the country. National team coaches have long debated as to whose style would best complement the team. On the men’s side, Tim Howard would play deep into the 2018 World Cup cycle, long past his prime, simply because there wasn’t a clear successor. Brad Guzan is almost the exact opposite goalkeeper as Howard and wasn’t a natural fit. After the Hope Solo era with the USWNT, many were slow to draw any comparison from Alyssa Naeher to Solo, with Ashlynn Harris being another wildly different goalkeeper. In the college game, coaches’ desired qualities for their starting goalkeeper vary from school-to-school, largely due to most having little or no background with goalkeeping. Youth and club goalkeeper coaches are, for the most part, developing players on an island, without any input or gauge from a recognized authority on what is correct.
Confusion over goalkeeper development has rippled far off the field as well. USSF licensing has barely broached the issues and while the USC has done their best to offer an open, discussion-oriented setting, ultimately it leaves applicants to simply taking note of different approaches instead of getting coaches on the same page. The media cannot keep pace with understanding what a good American goalkeeper looks like as it’s been a moving target. For one cycle, the US will field a “calm, composed goalkeeper who is a strong shot-stopper”. The next cycle they’ll turn to a “brave, aggressive goalkeeper who’s not afraid to challenge a cross”. Vague anecdotes run rampant in post-game write-ups and in-game commentary, praising a goalkeeper for whatever the observer notices. With everyone pointing different directions, there are no wrong answers but there are no right answers either.
For most of soccer’s history in the US, the country was plagued with not having enough goalkeeper coaches to foster a positive training environment. Now the pendulum has swung the opposite direction as coaching education is so widely available that we have an abundance of differing philosophies when it comes to goalkeeper development. This excess in opinions and loss of leadership from the USSF has led the landscape to develop every type of goalkeeper, instead of repeating known successes. When looking at other nations with top goalkeeping cores, there is a general mold their goalkeepers are in line with but the US’s lack of a team identity has bled over to the goalkeeping position. The absence of such a goalkeeper mold begs the question, “Why aren’t we modeling goalkeepers after Howard? Or Friedel? Scurry? Solo?”
Rewinding back to the most recent U20 tournament, US head coach Tab Ramos struggled to sort out the number one position, which is odd given the team’s success in the tournament. Despite starting Brady Scott in the win over the expected winner (France), Ramos removed Scott for Real Salt Lake’s David Ochoa after many were underwhelmed with Scott’s performances in the tournament. The switch ultimately proved ineffective as Ochoa appeared awkward and uncomfortable when he was called upon during the game. Ochoa panicked multiple times when receiving a back-pass, displayed some dangerous hesitancy when coming off his line, and was severely out of position on the opening goal. Most of the problems Ochoa faced were not technical or mechanical issues, but tactical decisions, highlighting the point that he was unsure of how an American goalkeeper should play with this specific team. After two unsuccessful attempts to find a confident goalkeeper to lead the US, only Benfica’s CJ dos Santos was left minute-less by the end of the tournament, likely due to dos Santos’ aggressive, sweeper keeper tendencies being foreign to the coach who played alongside Tony Meola for most of his career. Out of three very different goalkeepers, none of them seemed to fit within the system.
For nearly every U20 goalkeeper, their development path will be littered with a dozen different goalkeeper coaches before they turn 25, each one emphasizing what they best see fit. While every goalkeeper coach would agree the main priority for an American goalkeeper is to keep the ball out of the net, the troubling dissonance is found in what constitutes as doing just that. Should American goalkeepers be aggressive on crosses? Are sweeper keepers a better fit? Do coaches want to see more catches or parries? What is the US’s stance on implementing foot saves as a major factor for low saves? How should goalkeepers approach 1v1s? After not having a Director of Goalkeeping within USSF since 2005, should the federation look to fill the vacancy with one of the many qualified coaches throughout the country? Finding answers to these questions is not the problem, but the lack of the USSF’s direction with goalkeeper development is.