2018 MLS Mock Draft - Goalkeeper Edition

The 2018 MLS SuperDraft is less than three weeks away and this year's senior class has a number of goalkeepers who look more than ready for the next level. It's the strongest goalkeeping class since 2007, which featured Luis Robles, Tally Hall, Chris Seitz, Chris Konopka, and Kyle Reynish.

Dating back to the 2013 SuperDraft, 28 goalkeepers have been selected over a combined 330 picks. (Not counting Evan Louro's homegrown signing with the Red Bulls.) Although there are exceptions, teams typically don't draft goalkeepers until the top field players have been selected. Four goalkeepers over the past four years went in the first round, while the other 24 went in the second, third, or fourth round. However the late start on goalkeepers makes them a higher commodity in later rounds, where it's not rare to see a wave of goalkeeper picks once one is selected. 

Knowing that anything can happen on draft day, there are some safer bets than others. Chicago, FC Dallas, Montreal, NYC and Sporting Kansas City are all filled at the goalkeeping position while Houston, Orlando, and Seattle are all in the greatest need. No collegiate goalkeeper will be vying for starting minutes right away. Instead MLS teams will be looking more long term, filling their USL rosters or a number three slot. There are 92 picks this year, which puts MLS teams on "pace" to select 7.8 goalkeepers over the four rounds. Let's find eight goalkeepers homes in MLS.

 

1. Jeff Caldwell - Houston Dynamo, 1st Round

  photo from  The Sounder Fan

photo from The Sounder Fan

There's a decent chance Caldwell falls to the Dynamo late in the first round. MLS teams are historically skittish in selecting a goalkeeper early into the draft unless they're confident in handing out a guaranteed MLS contract, which Caldwell will most definitely want. There are other teams in need of goalkeepers ahead of Houston but the field player-heavy draft could see those teams waiting until the second round to pickup a goalkeeper. Houston only have one goalkeeper signed between their MLS and USL squads and Caldwell is someone who could be playing in MLS in 2-3 years. There's a big enough need that the Dynamo could theoretically end up with two goalkeepers this draft but at the very least Houston should snag one of the top goalkeepers.

 

2. Eric Dick - Seattle Sounders, 1st Round

There's always the chance Seattle signs Paul Christensen as a homegrown option but something tells me if it hasn't happened by now, it's not going to happen. Seattle is known for having a good core of goalkeepers with their USL side and Eric Dick will certainly bolster the currently empty roster. At the end of the first round, the Sounders will have to wonder if there are really that many better options elsewhere and what goalkeepers will be left by the end of the second round.

 

3. Ben Lundgaard - Colorado Rapids, 2nd Round

  Virginia Tech Athletics

Virginia Tech Athletics

Colorado are currently sitting on five draft picks so it's likely they'll use one on a goalkeeper at some point. Lundgaard won ACC Goalkeeper of the Year over Caldwell and has the type of save in his repertoire to keep his team in games they probably shouldn't be in. The only problem is that the Rapids' haven't had much success in drafting goalkeepers in the past, mostly due to their own fault. The last goalkeeper they drafted, Ohio State alum Chris Froschauer, they prompted dropped the following summer after they brought Tim Howard in. The Rapids should leave the draft with a promising prospect but after six failed attempts at drafting an eventual starting goalkeeper, Rapids fans may not want to be holding their breath on this one.

 

4. Michael Nelson - DC United, 2nd Round

  SMU Athletics

SMU Athletics

There's going to be a point in the draft when goalkeepers are flying off the board and teams are going to look at Nelson as a safe pick, as they should. He has the frame and composure to succeed at the next level, as shown with a successful tournament run with SMU. DC have had as many as four goalkeepers on an MLS contract in the past and if they truly are considering a USL side for 2019, Nelson is a good place to start.

 

5. Paul Christensen - Atlanta United, 2nd Round

  photo from  The Sounder Fan

photo from The Sounder Fan

If Atlanta are still aiming for starting a USL affiliate in 2018, they'll need at least two more goalkeepers. We haven't heard any more news about the expansion since November, so I wouldn't be completely surprised if the plan was put on pause for another year but pessimism aside, Christensen would be a fine fit in Atlanta. He's a tad undersized for a traditional MLS goalkeeper but he makes up for it in quickness and reactions. The USYNT product has the option of signing with Seattle as a homegrown but with so much time passing, it's likely that Seattle hasn't offered it or Christensen wants to try his luck elsewhere. I would expect Christensen to want an MLS contract, similar to Jack McGuire last year, and Atlanta seems like the type of team that would be willing to oblige.

 

6. Drew Shepherd - Philadelphia Union, 3rd Round

  WMU Athletics

WMU Athletics

MLS drafts have been kind to goalkeepers from small schools and Shepherd was a part of possibly the most successful class in Western Michigan University's history. Philadelphia already have a young goalkeeping core with three goalkeepers under 28 but none rostered with Bethlehem Steel. The Union have three draft picks in the last two rounds and goalkeepers are traditionally safer picks than field players. Shepherd doesn't have a ton of press going into the draft so to see him go undrafted wouldn't be a shock, although he's shown the ability and determination to get to the next level one way or another.

 

7. Scott Levene - New York Red Bulls, 4th Round

  Steve Slade

Steve Slade

Similar to Philadelphia, the Red Bulls need USL goalkeepers. However the Red Bulls are in an interesting position with no third round selections and with Robles on the backend of his career, they could afford to be a little more aggressive with their second round pick. Levene has 70 collegiate games to his name - much more compared to his peers  - from the same university that produced Andre Blake. So for whichever team Levene ends up at, they'll be receiving a much-tested goalkeeper.

 

8. Nico Corti - Los Angeles FC, 4th Round

  Stanford Athletics

Stanford Athletics

In contrast to Levene, Corti doesn't have a ton of game experience under his belt, less than 2200 minutes played in his collegiate career. Fortunately for Corti, he earned a national championship for his résumé and never looked uncomfortable when in goal. While I'm aware Orlando doesn't have a 4th round pick, it's not that tricky to obtain a late round draft pick. OCSC need another three goalkeepers to fill out their MLS/USL rosters and starting in the draft is as good of time as any. It's a low-risk/high-reward situation for OCSC to make a play for the senior Cardinal.

Update: Orlando City has quietly announced that their USL squad will not compete in 2018 so Corti slides to LAFC. Stanford is a cool five hours north of LA and you'd hope the new MLS team would be aware of a national champion in their backyard. LA still needs a starter but they also don't have a third string goalkeeper yet. Corti would be a fine addition for them.

How Important Is the MLS Superdraft for Goalkeepers?

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. 

 Figure 1 - Includes drafted, homegrowns, and Generation Adidas goalkeepers. Essentially all goalkeepers that would be considered a prospect.

Figure 1 - Includes drafted, homegrowns, and Generation Adidas goalkeepers. Essentially all goalkeepers that would be considered a prospect.

 Figure 2 - The "1995 draft" is the inaugural draft, which was a little under half of college graduates but accurately occurred prior to the 1996 season The "1996 draft" is the college draft, also before the 1996 season.

Figure 2 - The "1995 draft" is the inaugural draft, which was a little under half of college graduates but accurately occurred prior to the 1996 season The "1996 draft" is the college draft, also before the 1996 season.

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

 Every combine goalkeeper since 2003. Gm/yr was maxed out at 10 years, as seen with Perkins and Kennedy.

Every combine goalkeeper since 2003. Gm/yr was maxed out at 10 years, as seen with Perkins and Kennedy.

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. 

 +/- =  tm.succ - (prospects - tm.succ) - (lg.succ - tm.succ) ... essentially counting all the times a team got it right, with a penalty for losing a good goalkeeper

+/- =  tm.succ - (prospects - tm.succ) - (lg.succ - tm.succ) ... essentially counting all the times a team got it right, with a penalty for losing a good goalkeeper

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.