Scouting Report: Five U20 Goalkeepers Worth Remembering

cover photo belongs to Getty Images

Eric Lopez - Los Angeles Galaxy 2, 18

Lopez has quietly risen to prominence out west. While a number of his peers are in Europe, Lopez shows us that the US can still develop their own goalkeepers. Lopez, who turns 19 in March, has a good frame and moves well in the box. He's shown positive strides in his 1v1 approach and continues to fight for time in a highly competitive environment with LAG2. If Lopez continues to round out his game, he'll be fighting for playing time against Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath soon enough.

 

Carlos dos Santos - Benfica, 17

With the way dos Santos covers the goal frame, it's hard not to think of David de Gea. Dos Santos possesses a massive spring to propel himself like no other USYNT prospect. But unlike de Gea, dos Santos plays with such an aggressive mindset that he'll insert himself into almost any play that enters the box. It's a tough playstyle to master, one we haven't witnessed in the American scene since Kevin Hartman, but if dos Santos can find that perfect balance, he'll be a strong presence down the line.

 

Laurel Ivory - University of Virginia, 18

Last fall Ivory was with the University of Virginia and this spring she's with the U20s in their current World Cup Qualifying campaign. Ivory is akin to recently acquired Utah Royals goalkeeper, EJ Proctor (or Ethan Horvath for Ivory's male counterpart). Ivory stays close to her line, relying on her ability to read the game and react from the goal mouth. She doesn't get overwhelmed in unfamiliar scenarios and isn't afraid to challenge crosses in the box. While she's a little undersized for an ideal goalkeeper, she more than makes up for it with her balance, game knowledge, and self-confidence.

 

Nicolas Defreitas-Hansen - Everton, 16

When a sixteen-year-old is starting for a Premier League U18 team, it's a safe bet to say he's a pretty decent player. Defreitas-Hansen sits right around 6'0" and has a deceptively quick post-to-post time. Similar to Ivory, Defreitas-Hansen prefers to stand players up but does a great job of keeping his weight forward and his feet under him. Reportedly Defreitas-Hansen can also play for Brazil and Denmark but he's only represented the US thus far, making three appearances with the U16s.

 

Hillary Beall - University of Michigan, 19

With most tall goalkeepers, they struggle to move from side-to-side and to quickly drop to the ground. Fortunately for the University of Michigan, Beall has shown the agility to take her game past college. The 5'11" goalkeeper can move in the box and has strong hands to complement her play. Beall made seven starts her freshmen year and is poised to take over as the starter for the Wolverines in 2018.

Is Jonathan Klinsmann the Right Goalkeeper for the U20s?

Early Monday morning, the U20s kicked off their World Cup run with a dramatic 3-3 tie, leaning heavily on a 94th minute volley from Luca de la Torre. Despite the late game heroics, many pointed to Jonathan Klinsmann as the weak link of the team after conceding three goals. (Read BigSoccer's game day thread to hear fans go from awe to disgust in a matter of seconds.) There are many fans calling for Klinsmann's benching, while some seem to have been harboring their displeasure with the goalkeeper for some time.

Let's take a closer look at his performance before we dive into who should be the starting goalkeeper.

 

First Goal

You know a situation is bad when your main defender is in the process of starting his first of two somersaults. It's a tricky situation for Klinsmann because if he stays home, maybe he should have gone and vice versa. In these situations, the decision comes second to the execution. There's a right and wrong way to attack and there's a right and wrong way to stay back. It's not realistic to expect goalkeepers to know how everything is going to play out on 1v1s. Ultimately, they must make a decision and execute it as best they can.

Klinsmann decides to step to the ball and his approach is originally thought out well. He steps to the striker (second picture) as a touch on the ball is made, which is the exact time a goalkeeper should step. The longest amount of time a striker has before touching the ball is right after his preceding touch. The longer a goalkeeper waits to step after a touch, the closer the striker is to his next touch.

Building off the earlier point, Klinsmann's final execution is lacking. He makes up his mind very early to throw out a studs up one-footed tackle for an attacker who is going across Klinsmann's body. If Klinsmann throws his hands out low to his left, there's a high probability he knocks the ball away.

Additionally, Klinsmann is asking for a red card here. When accessing a referee's call on a play, a goalkeeper must limit the possibility of what a referee could call against them. Klinsmann does not receive a card on the play (personally the correct call) but it's very easy to see how a referee would give a red card to Klinsmann. Perhaps the touch doesn't lead to an open teammate and the striker goes to ground. We've all seen referees award red cards for similar plays and Klinsmann doesn't protect himself with an exposed one-footed slide that gets close to a scissor tackle.

It's an undesirable situation, but Klinsmann doesn't help himself as much as he could. A hands-led tackle likely stops the first goal and keeps the scoreline level.

 

Second Goal

This is a great example of how 1v1 situations can be drastically different from one to the next. The Ecuadorian striker takes a long touch but because of the defender staying in the picture (despite ultimately losing out) Klinsmann doesn't have a clear road to attack the ball. If the defender were to have an opportunity to clear the ball but only receive a tackle from Klinsmann, the chaos could very well backfire on the American defense.

Klinsmann's decision to stay home isn't necessarily wrong, but his execution is problematic again. He creeps up on the play in order to be ready to pounce on an extra touch but inadvertently puts him in a version of "no man's land". He is too far forward to give himself time to react but not far enough forward to cut down the angle to any real value.

Even more concerning, Klinsmann's feet go cold at the exact wrong time. Notice in pictures 3-6 how slow he is to move. The ball is not struck far from his body (the bending shot hits close to the middle of the net) yet his feet's loss of movement stops him from moving his upper body in time.

His weight is also too far back. (Picture 4 looks like he's sitting in an invisible chair.) The only movement he can do is a hopeful leg thrown forward, which is entirely the wrong motion needed. His body falls backwards, into his weight.

I'd like to see Klinsmann stay a step back here to give himself more time to react but the bigger issue is his feet. If his heels rest on the play (aka "cold feet") he makes the play ten times harder on himself. His upper body can move quicker if his feet are ready to spring but he's cemented himself in place. For a shot not hit far away from his body, it's a play that a goalkeeper of Klinsmann's caliber should be able to do more on.

 

Breakaway Save

For a game that was 2-2 with only 30 minutes left in it, it's hard to be critical of any save. Klinsmann forces the shooter to a take a shot into his body and the US were let off the hook for bad defending. However there are some worrying signs on the play.

The offside trap fails, as always, because of one defender. Unfortunately Klinsmann gives no verbal warning of the sneaky striker and appears to have no idea he's even there. Notice how Klinsmann goes to collect a long through ball only to realize there is a perfectly timed striker heading towards goal. (Second picture, Klinsmann is correcting his wrong step with his right foot. The misstep is displayed better in video.)

It's a fine save, but Klinsmann needs to keep an eye on backside runs to limit chances on goal. A goalkeeper should look to be preventative when dealing with shots and only have to make the saves when previous attempts of communication have failed.

 

Third Goal

Finally we arrive at Klinsmann's worst mistake. Needless to say it's a mistake that Klinsmann will be criticized for some time and honestly there is no protection for Klinsmann here. Some may argue that he shouldn't receive the back pass or that his left back should have opened up more for him, but the error is solely on Klinsmann. Players constantly receive undesirable situations but their redemption is rooted in if they made the best with what they could. Klinsmann, in contrast, makes a bad situation even worse three times over.

First, Klinsmann's starting touch is across his body with right foot (second picture). The awkward trap loses time for Klinsmann and sends out a loud alarm to defending attackers that the goalkeeper can't play with his left foot. A confident left footed trap dissolves the situation, despite little help from his teammates.

Klinsmann's second mistake is found in his following touch. Recognizing that he has no realistic options and is surrounded by yellow shirts, he must place the ball into the stands. Even if this results in a corner kick for Ecuador, at the very least the US could set up to protect the goal. Instead, Klinsmann tries to take another touch to round the first defender to little success.

Lastly, after Klinsmann has gifted the ball back into the opposition's possession, he panics in retreating to the goal. There is no time for Klinsmann to achieve better positioning. He must stand his ground and do what he can from there. The seven or eight backwards steps transform Klinsmann into the equivalent of a traffic cone. The shot is not struck far from Klinsmann (see last pictures) and if he does not backpedal, or at least limits the number of steps he takes, he can likely make the save. 

Perhaps the most frustrating part, Klinsmann looks completely defeated after the goal. His teammates already know he has messed up - everyone in the stadium knows in - there is no need to confirm a sense of disappointment in the play. There will be plenty of time to feel sorry about the mistake after the game. In the middle of turmoil, a team needs their goalkeeper to get them back on track, not mope alongside them.

 

Who Should Start for the U20s?

In true USYNT-form, we're left with one seasoned goalkeeper and a handful of untested backups. JT Marcinkowski has seen one game with the U20s in a throw away match, so it's hard to say how he would perform. For those who have watched him at Georgetown, he's performed very well but it's not necessarily a 1-to-1 transition to the U20s.

Ultimately there is a lot of information fans don't have. How does the player chemistry differ from Klinsmann to Marcinkowski? How did Klinsmann respond to the team after the game? In the next practice? Was the US's third goal a rally from the team's respect for Klinsmann? Has Marcinkowski put himself in a position with the team to confidently take over the starting spot? What do the coaches know about the goalkeepers that we don't? There are several questions we just don't have the answers for.

There's a strong possibility Klinsmann will be benched for the second game, but calling for it is admittedly based off a slice of information. Perhaps the bigger problem is that Marcinkowski hasn't had the opportunity to show his value. If we're worried that Klinsmann won't give his teammates confidence in the back, Marcinkowski's lack of game time doesn't solve that problem.

Known For His High Flying Saves, Many Miss the Holes in Andre Blake's game

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.

Cody Cropper v. Mexico - 04.22.15

This is a write up of an old game I did for the now defunct blog, back in April of 2015. Some additions were made but for the most part, the writeup remains the same.

Like any good US soccer fan, I’ve been tracking the next great bald goalkeeper, Minnesota native Cody Cropper, for a couple of years. In 2013, I watched him make two bizarre blunders in one play against France in the Toulon tournament. Later I saw him struggle against Mexico in the 2013 U20 Championship and tried my best to ignore some late game extracurricular activities. When the U20 World Cup came, he displayed some impressive saves against Ghana but gave up some goals that were head scratchers. He then followed that game by conceding another four goals against Spain, tallying eight in the two first games. He returned to Southampton soon after, where he looked a step behind when they played Chelsea in a 4-1 loss. A year later Cropper opened up against the Brazil U23’s by gifting the opposition with a free goal in the very early minutes of the match. So needless to say, when I heard he played great against Mexico in the #tresacero match, I was anxious to watch the highlights.

Some great saves to stunt the Mexican attack but what can we learn from the outing? Let’s take a look at three plays in the game.

0:33 - Cropper correctly skips his eyes ahead on the cross and is ready for the header. The header never comes so he takes shorts strides with his feet in rhythm to set himself for the next shot. As the shot comes, his hands hiccup, a result of habitually throwing your hands forward and slightly upward as the shot comes. He gets down for the save - a very good one at that - but the redirection in hand movement is not ideal. Goalkeepers should look to minimize excessive movement as much as they can as this is a good example of it.

3:15 - This play is similar in execution as the early save but with opposite implications. Watch as his hands go from thighs-to-textbook position (in front, holding an invisible ball) and then back to his thighs. While this would technically count as “excessive movement”, the reason he is doing this is, most likely, because he is trying to break a bad habit and start a good one. Ideally, the hands are in front for the pre-shot set so he only has to move his arms to make the save, not his arms and hands. His alternating between right and wrong shows their is a mental battle going on to be keen on correct technique. The resulting save has nothing to do with his hands, but it’s still a very good sign for development. However, the other thing to note on the play is that he hardly gets off the ground to make the save. This is a result of diving with just your upper body and lacking, in this case, and shuffle and a spring.

3:55 - An excessive high line on crossing situations causes more problems than solves them and we see Cropper backpedal to the goal to find the correct position. The scramble in the box pulls and hesitates Cropper, an expected movement given the circumstance. The bouncing ball is redirected by a head and the goalkeeper’s best attribute comes into action: strength. He dives, not falls, with one leg to keep the shutout. Is it correct technique? Definitely not. His right leg should not collapse on such a wide shut. But is it a phenomenal save that he can build off of? Absolutely if he is mindful of working on his technique.

 

The US U20s and U17s have historically struggled to field goalkeepers that go on to have successful careers. The USYNTs rely on pure athleticism to hold down the fort, which we have seen time and time again isn’t enough. The big question for Cropper now is where does he go from here? Optimism points to the fact that Cropper, still only 22, has years to develop and is clearly improving in a multitude of ways. The flip side is doubtful that he can successfully adhere to correct technique and not solely rely on his strength. Still, the hope that a bald man starts for the USMNT is a strong possibility for now.

 

Update: Cropper has signed with the New England Revolution after being released by MK Dons, where he had a polarizing time for fans. Some ups and some downs, both seen below.