USL Expansion Is Saving the American Goalkeeper

cover photo from Soccer Today

For the past few years there’s been a growing concern about the development of the American player. With MLS putting heavy resources into bringing foreign players into the league, the future for domestic talent was left unclear. Questions surfaced about MLS’ ability to simultaneously rise the overall talent level of the league and aide the development for Americans at the same time.

Heading into 2018, MLS goalkeepers’ salaries had stagnated in their growth. While it was a problem for the league’s position regardless of nationality, it was a pretty clear sign that American goalkeepers weren’t seeing as much of an investment from the league as other positions were. As teams across the league looked for their Wayne Rooney-equivalent, they also refrained from shelling out for goalkeepers. The past decade has been earmarked with the league cutting corners on not only developing young players but also getting top goalkeepers in the league, which unsurprisingly were tied to each other.

MLS has unrolled nine new teams (and lost one) since 2010. The new roster spots have been a nice addition for American players who couldn’t catch on elsewhere in MLS, but the lower leagues have shown more substantial gains in real estate. In the same time span that MLS grew by eight teams, lower tiers (a combination of USL, NASL, and NISA) have grown by a total of 32 teams.

Expanding the American Goalkeeper Landscape

How many American goalkeepers earned 10 league appearances by year and age. The top chart is by percentage, while the bottom chart is raw numbers. 2019 are projections.

How many American goalkeepers earned 10 league appearances by year and age. The top chart is by percentage, while the bottom chart is raw numbers. 2019 are projections.

To best show how the landscape has changed for American goalkeepers, I tracked every goalkeeper who made 10 league appearances since 2010 by year and age. It’s not a perfect method, but the goal was to see how teams invested their most valuable (league competition) and regular playing time when it came to their goalkeepers. While late round USOC and CCL games are treated important, most teams’ lineups vary from B+ to C- squads in the early rounds so league play was the most consistent standard when gauging teams’ investments.

Looking at the two charts, the yellow-to-white-to-blue scale shows the slices of each group by year. The 34 and older age group has dwindled significantly since 2010, while the 22-25 has doubled. “Non-US” accounts all players who can’t play for the USMNT, with the age of the goalkeeper being irrelevant for this category. Similarly, the second chart (green-white-blue) gives the raw numbers for each section.

Again, it’s important to note that these numbers are not roster spots, but a gauge of playing time MLS, USL and NASL teams devoted to the goalkeeping position. It’s one thing to make the game day roster, it’s quite another to play a third of the team’s games. Looking at the numbers, there are three major trends that immediately stand out.

1. Playing time for foreign goalkeepers has stayed fairly consistent - It’s hard to say what a good share of foreigners is in any country’s pyramid should be. When considering American development within the professional game, it’s good to remember that it’s not about removing foreigners but simply getting the correct talent in place. If a MLS, USL, and NISA team can find a better player - in any position - at an appropriate price, raising the level of competition serves teammates and opposition well, regardless of nationality.

A notable example of seeing the influence of a high profile athlete transcending nationalities can be found in Peter Schmeichel’s recounting of Gordon Banks’ save against Pele in the 1970 World Cup. The Brit’s performance (a decade before the Danish goalkeeper started as a professional) inspired Schmeichel to play at a higher level, even later recreating his own take on the save. This sort of standard is why goalkeepers like Pat Onstad, Jaime Penedo, and Jorge Campos are important to the American landscape. It’s a tangible goal players (current and young) to aspire towards.

The average age of a professional American goalkeeper has dropped from 29 (2010) to 25.77 (2015) and currently sits at 25.83 (2019).

The average age of a professional American goalkeeper has dropped from 29 (2010) to 25.77 (2015) and currently sits at 25.83 (2019).

2. Professional American goalkeepers are getting younger - The big reason why the average age has dipped is because USL teams - not MLS - are taking more chances on the recent college graduates. MLS is notorious for struggling to play youngsters, only recently empowering their U23 players. Yet the USL has been increasingly kind to young players and are the main reason for why 35.6% of the counted goalkeepers land in the 22-25 age range.

The trend is now bleeding into the 18-21 age bracket, with five college-aged Americans earning ten league starts in 2018. Ten goalkeepers are currently on track to double last year’s numbers. It’s hard to see where the ceiling is for U20 goalkeepers getting time but for now American goalkeepers are getting younger by the minute.

3. Late teenagers are opting out of college - Los Angeles Galaxy’s USL side paved the way for USL teams knowing how to place responsibility on a young goalkeeper’s shoulders. Originally leaning on early-to-mid 20 year olds like Brian Rowe, Brian Perk and Celement Diop, Galaxy reset their course and immediately invested in Eric Lopez, giving the 17-year-old a dozen starts in 2017, the most for any goalkeeper on the roster. They doubled down on their commitment to young goalkeepers by bringing in Justin vom Steeg and Abraham Romero.

Since then, Abraham Rodriguez (16, Colorado Springs), Aaron Cervantes (17, Orange County), David Ochoa (17, Real Monarchs), Luca Mancuso (17, Orlando B), and Max Trejo (17, Swope Park Rangers) have all earned a start in USL action just one month into the season. Perhaps most notably, two of these five goalkeepers aren’t MLS affiliates, meaning teams that aren’t a direct feeder into an MLS side are starting to invest in young players as well. It’s an unheard time in American goalkeeping and one that will start to undo the fractured goalkeeping environment that’s plagued player development for the past two decades.

Where do we go from here?

It’s been a painfully slow progress to get to this point but the last few years have seen doors open in ways that didn’t exist before. Ultimately if MLS teams want to continue to flip future Zack Steffens for $8-to-10 million dollars, they need to continue to flesh out player development for 18-23 year olds. If the NCAA continues to show no interest in adapting to the modern game and best serve the student-athlete, the responsibility falls on the USL to help bridge the gap for aspiring players to reach their potential. A few years ago, signing with a USL side for $8,000 only to sit the bench was less than a desirable option, but with promising roads being paved to MLS and perhaps beyond, don’t be surprised to see even more young players jump straight to the pro game as soon as possible.

MLS Goalkeepers on the Offseason

Following last year’s article, Everybody Soccer returns to inform fans on how their favorite MLS goalkeepers kept themselves busy this winter. From a wide variety of answers, it’s clear to see that there’s no one right way for how an athlete should best prepare for the nine month season. Special thanks go out to independent contractors Hunter Beck, Jared Dryden, JT Hill, Jacob Klotz, Tanner Sharp, and Barrett Smith for their diligent reporting.

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Top USYNT Goalkeepers by Birth Year

Early in the week we dove into the top 100 American goalkeepers on the men’s side so to give some face time for the young guns coming up, here are the top eight goalkeepers from each birth year. Goalkeepers are ranked more on ceiling and potential and less about current form. Not every goalkeeper’s birth year is public so some of the goalkeepers may be placed up or down a year.

# - recently graduated

1995

1. Jane Campbell (Houston Dash)
2. Courtney Brosnan (Le Havre)
3. Lauren Clem (Uppsala)
4. Cassie Miller (PSV Eindhoven)
5. Mallory Geurts (Västerås BK30)
6. Danielle Rice (Assi)
7. Alison Jahansouz (Stanford) #
8. Hannah Seabert (Fortuna Hjorring)

1. Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge)
2. Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew)
3. Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas)
4. Todd Morton (Delaware) #
5. Bobby Edwards (Mount St. Mary's) #
6. Michael Nelson (Houston Dynamo)
7. Ben Lundgaard (Columbus Crew)
8. Rashid Nuhu (Fordham) #

1996

1. Casey Murphy (Montpellier)
2. Emily Boyd (Chicago Red Stars)
3. Lainey Burdett (Arizona) #
4. Ella Dederick (Washington State) #
5. Rachel Egyed (Maryland) #
6. Caroline Brockmeier (LSU) #
7. Kelsey Daugherty (UAB) #
8. Rachel Lusby (Portland) #

1. Jeff Caldwell (New York City FC)
2. Benjamin Machini (Burgos CF)
3. Evan Louro (New York Red Bulls)
4. Paul Christensen (Atlanta United 2)
5. Luis Barraza (Marquette) #
6. Mike Novotny (Hartford Athletic)
7. Ben Willis (Gonzaga) #
8 Ryan Cretens (UNC Wilmington) #

1997

1. Jalen Tompkins (Colorado)
2. Kaelyn Johns (Dayton)
3. Cosette Morche (Texas A&M)
4. Paige Simoneau (San Jose State) #
5. Devon Kerr (Ohio State) #
6. Lauren Rood (Stanford)
7. Hannah Luedtke (Butler)
8. Reilley Ott (Michigan State)

1. JT Marcinkowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
2. Jonathan Klinsmann (Hertha BSC)
3. Justin vom Steeg (Los Angeles Galaxy)
4. Jimmy Slayton (Hartford)
5. Briley Guarneri (Colorado Mesa) #
6. Parker Siegfried (Ohio State)
7. Jacob Harris (Colgate)
8. Chase Gentry (Tulsa Roughnecks)

1998

1. Mikayla Krzeczowski (South Carolina)
2. Kaylie Collins (USC)
3. Jaelyn Cunningham (Illinois)
4. Brooke Heinsohn (Duke)
5. Mandy McGlynn (Virginia Tech)
6. Amanda Fitzgerald (Fairleigh Dickinson)
7. Abby Stapleton (Charlotte)
8. Amanda Dennis (Penn State)

1. Abraham Romero (Pachuca)
2. Kevin Silva (Hearts of Midlothian)
3. Chase Vosvick (Loyola Maryland)
4. Ben Hale (Furman)
5. Will Pulisic (Duke)
6. Matt Freese (Philadelphia Union)
7. Colin Shutler (Virginia)
8. Drew Romig (North Carolina)

1999 and Younger

1. Claudia Dickey (North Carolina)
2. Hillary Beall (Michigan)
3. Laurel Ivory (Virginia)
4. Brooke Bollinger (Florida State)
5. Lauren Brzykcy (UCLA)
6. Mackenzie Wood (Northwestern)
7. Hensley Hancuff (Villanova)
8. Angelina Anderson (California)

1. Carlos dos Santos (Benfica)
2. Eric Lopez (Los Angeles Galaxy II)
3. Nicolas Defreitas-Hansen (Everton)
4. Brady Scott (FC Köln)
5. Damian Las (Chicago Fire)
6. Luca Lewis (Torino)
7. Ethan Wady (Chelsea)
8. Sam Fowler (Washington)

cover photo from the Trentonian

Can the USWNT Learn Anything from the Canadian Hockey League?

cover photo belongs to ISI Photo

Back in the summer of 2013, the Canadian Hockey League made a surprise announcement when they put a ban on foreign goalies entering the league. The ban - specifically aimed at talented European goaltenders - limited teams from drafting any non-North American goalies in the three junior leagues (all under the CHL) in an attempt to give more playing time for Canadians to aide in their development. The move was a response to the country’s perceived goaltending crisis, where many viewed the netminders as a major weak point in Canadian hockey. Even as recently as summer 2017, the goalie development crisis was still a concern for some despite the league’s efforts to mend the issue. However the CHL rolled back the ban this summer, citing improvements to goalie development, although there is still some debate on the impact of the short-lived rule.

Turning to the USSF, it’s no secret goalkeeper development hasn’t been at its best in recent years. While the USMNT is struggling to fill out their second and third slots with proven talent, the USWNT is in a tight spot as well. Replacing Hope Solo has been more challenging than expected, collegiate production seems to have hit a bit of a lull, and looking back at the 2018 Women’s U20 World Cup, goalkeeping wasn’t exactly the strong point in their tournament run.

Looking at both Hockey Canada and USWNT, there are some similarities between the two organizations’ last line of defense in terms of development. When Hockey Canada introduced the ban, it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction after a few poor games. The ban was put in place after many realized the lack of representation of top Canadian goalies in both the professional leagues as well as the youth leagues. While stating the USWNT’s goalkeeper situation as a “crisis” is a bit excessive, the US has still yet to develop a goalkeeper at the level of Briana Scurry or Hope Solo nor is on track to do so. Both programs were once producing top-level goaltenders yet they’ve slowed their production in recent years.

To understand if Hockey Canada’s approach would be a good fit for the NWSL, it’s important to look at the problems plaguing the USWNT’s goalkeeper pool.

1. There is no one directing goalkeeper development within US Soccer - The last person to fill this spot was Peter Mellor back in 2005 before he moved to work solely with Real Salt Lake. Since then the standard for how a goalkeeper develops has been overseen by each coach on their own accord, from professional and youth clubs alike. At most, the federation has given vague guidelines on how goalkeepers must be developed through their licensing classes. Unfortunately most USSF coaching licenses spend little time on the position and typically are led by coaches who have never played goalkeeper. The USSF only recently started an A license goalkeeping course but featured zero NWSL goalkeeper coaches.

USYNT goalkeeper coaches work in a revolving door fashion, offering little consistency for who players will be training with from camp to camp. On the club’s side, a number of WPSL and UWS teams don’t have a goalkeeper coach while finding a collegiate problem with a goalkeeping coach who has been there for four years is tough to find. Additionally, NWSL coaches are limited to developing their second-string goalkeepers through practice, as it’s tough to find meaningful minutes for young backups.

The landscape for goalkeeping coaches in America is a mess. For every one positive goalkeeping environment in the US, there are another ten negative ones. Having a Director of Goalkeeping would ideally oversee the development for top-level goalkeepers, but also assist in making sure goalkeeper coaches across the country are on the right path when training their own goalkeepers.

A few months ago, Tab Ramos told SoccerAmerica how he’s aware of the need yet was currently in a hiring freeze, although since then the freeze seems to have been lifted. As of right now, the USSF has yet to name someone to oversee goalkeeper development on a full-time basis.

Rose Chandler holding the Golden Glove award from the 2016 CONCACAF Under-20 Women's Championship. Chandler did not return for her senior year at Penn State.  Photo from    gopsusports.com

Rose Chandler holding the Golden Glove award from the 2016 CONCACAF Under-20 Women's Championship. Chandler did not return for her senior year at Penn State. Photo from gopsusports.com

2. The dropout rate is too high - Just in the last few years, the women’s goalkeeping pool has lost a number of young prospects. Libby Stout, Caroline Stanley, Madalyn Schiffel, Brianna Smallidge, EJ Proctor, Alyssa Giannetti, Rose Chandler, and Evangeline Soucie have all retired for a variety of reasons. For some, retirement was unavoidable due to injuries but as a whole, there are far too many goalkeepers simply opting out for another career track outside of professional soccer.

Some may argue that goalkeepers who retire young aren’t in contention to truly compete for the USWNT’s starting spot and while it’s not fair to make a claim that early in a player’s career, it’s also missing the bigger issue. Top goalkeepers are only pushed by those who are under them. If there’s not enough talent to compete for a starting spot, things can easily become stagnant.

The dropout rate is a hard problem to combat, as money is a major driving force in persuading any career pursuit, but it’s one that is quietly draining the goalkeeping pool.

3. The path to professionalism is too muddied - Looking back to the 2018 U20 Women’s World Cup, players entered the tournament from top clubs all around the world. French players came from PSG and Lyon. German players arrived from Turbine Potsdam and Bayern Munich. English players trained at Manchester City and Liverpool. Spanish players hailed from Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. In contrast, the US is relying heavily on the collegiate system, a training environment that plays four months out of the year. It’s a tall task for the University of Virginia to match Lyon or Barcelona’s resources.


Assuming a player is able to navigate a grueling four years playing in a jam-packed schedule, the road only gets tougher. Roster spots are scarce for rookies in the NWSL and even more challenging for goalkeepers as most teams only carry two. Some may look at the WPSL and UWS as helpful stopgaps but the reality is most of those teams rely heavily on collegiate players outside the D-1 level. It’s barely a developing ground for top collegiate players but certainly not aspiring professionals.

Unless there are dramatic changes to the collegiate setup, the USSF will eventually have to entice players to skip college altogether if they want to continue to compete with the world. Despite all it has to offer, UNC won’t be able to provide the same level of commitment as PSG and Lyon continue to ramp up what they have to offer their youth players. Until then a player whose sights are set on joining the NWSL has a large task in front of them: they must finish their cumbersome college career as a top U23 player in the world - by only training with their team for a third of the year - and somehow land a golden ticket to join an NWSL side full-time. Anything less and the player is likely looking at another career path. As of right now, there’s not a better domestic track provided for young players.

It’s hard to be optimistic towards the situation when the USSF is rolling out A licensing courses without NWSL coaches or presenting initiatives like bio-banding, a program that groups players by their physical development to alleviate the problem of coaches not appropriately challenging early and late bloomers. The program is a wonderful example of the USSF seeing a problem but being unaware of what is causing the complication. If the problem is centered on coaches not doing their job well, then reshuffling the deck isn’t going to address the issue. (Adnan Ilyas has a great write-up on more issues with bio-banding.)

Similar to the CHL’s approach, if Canadian goalies aren’t good enough, giving them more chances to fail will only help so much. The CHL raised the idea of new coaching certification to help with goalie development but according to In Goal Magazine, “five years later the impact seems to depend on where you live, with some regions accrediting coaches regularly and coaches in other areas that still haven’t heard of it, let alone opportunities to take the course.” It seems the CHL’s plan was half-hearted, not to mention short-lived.

Development is not solved solely by high-level game appearances. It must be addressed in a top-down manner. From USWNT training sessions to the grassroots level, the USSF must be keen on having a system that yields positive results and not simply rely on removing tougher competition or hoping a coach can figure it out on their own. While putting a ban on foreign goalkeepers in the NWSL might be a positive dose for the American pool, it doesn’t address the position in a more thorough manner. The NWSL is a premier league trying to elevate the level of its play, as well as the top domestic players. There are only so many young goalkeepers who can hop right into the league. Unless the NWSL is interested in lowering the level of play, a handful of extra games for young goalkeepers only will help so much.

There are a number of directions the USSF can take when approaching goalkeeper development but copying the CHL will likely result in a similar reversal of the ban in a short time. Looking across the globe, countries are continuing to put more resources into raising the level of play in their respective domestic leagues and youth national team development. In contrast, the US has yet to see any substantial improvements in the goalkeeping department over the past few years and the output is starting to show. In order for the USWNT to stay on top, simply outsourcing goalkeeper development to whoever is interested won’t be enough anymore.