Bill Reno: How to Make an MLS Goalkeeper (And How Well the Red Bulls Are Doing at It) Part III

Bill Reno joins RBNN this week to take a deep dive into goalkeeper development. Bill’s other written work can be found at ‘EVERYBODY SOCCER’. This is part one of a three part series.
Everybody Soccer is dedicated to following goalkeepers, typically centered on the American game although occasionally branching elsewhere. All articles, lists, and analysis found on ES are compiled by Bill Reno, unless otherwise noted.

by Bill Reno

Make an American Goalkeeper Great

This last Trumpian step is admittedly very tough given the landscape. USL teams’ goalkeeping coaches are… let’s say, “unproven”. MLS goalkeeper coaches don’t have much of a better track record with developing the young players.

Money put into USL goalkeeping coaching positions hovers around “very little”. There’s more pressure on MLS coaches to get a readymade player, instead of properly developing the player. Despite there being a worthwhile reward to create a top-end goalkeeper, it’s still routinely botched every year.

Imagine owning a pizza company. You buy the best ingredients, you’ve got some really good pizza tossers in the back. (Idk what goes on behind the counter but I know that’s a thing. They throw the pizza in the air at some point.) Hell, you even have customers lining up out the door because the store is just really enjoyable to be inside. All you’ve got to do is the last step; Get the pizza out of the oven and into the hands of the customers.

Well, unfortunately, you’ve hired some waiters at $2/hour who occasionally just drop the pizza on the ground. “Oops!” They say, “That pizza wasn’t the best pizza. I think the toppings were messed up. We can just buy some from Papa John’s instead.”

Perhaps they leave the pizza in the oven too long, completely forgetting it was there. Guess what? Now the pizza is unusable unless you’re the kind of person who just loves eating burnt ashes. (No judgment here.)

“There’s no way MLS teams would be that irresponsible. That doesn’t happen.” Haha, I wish!

Let’s take a look out west, where Andrew Tarbell is turning into a lifelong backup. At 25!

Flashback to the end of 2015, the Clemson Tiger is hot off a National Championship appearance. Entering the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, he’s even hotter. He earns a Generation Adidas class tag. The Earthquakes use the eigth pick and draft Tarbell. Other teams openly lament their disappointment. One team said he looks like a “ten-year keeper”. This dude’s stock has a rocket strapped to its back. No way this could end poorly, right?

Well, 2016 comes and goes and guess what? He plays 45 minutes between MLS and USL action. Okay, maybe he’s just needing some extra time getting adjusted. Surely the Earthquakes know what they’re doing here. Turns out, they didn’t! After a dozen matches in 2017 everyone was surprised wasn’t ready to go in 2018. After continually seeing the league’s reluctance to develop American goalkeepers correctly (Tarbell is just one of many), it’s no surprise MLS teams look at overseas.

Back in January, I was fortunate to be published on American Soccer Analysis. You can witness this by reading my long-winded article cleverly tilted “Rankings MLS’ Best Foreign Goalkeepers”.

Don’t want to dive into the nuanced details of how foreign goalkeepers have performed in MLS? Here’s a brief recap:

The league hasn’t found consistent success bringing in foreign goalkeepers. At the same time, undersized American goalkeepers without an international resume have found success in the league.

The foreign gamble

Just this year, Cincinnati brought in a Polish goalkeeper who hasn’t been in goal for a league win since DECEMBER 2016! Over two years ago! His most recent accomplishment was being a backup on a relegated La Liga team and somehow that makes him more qualified than the best available American goalkeepers.

Turns out, there was a reason why he as an unused backup but Cincinnati decided he was worth $328,000. Minnesota is paying their starting goalkeeper, Vito Mannone, a cool $594,000 to play around the level of a USL goalkeeper. And some other team will probably do a similar maneuver next year.

More than ever, the American goalkeeper seems to have been counted out at the top level even though the 2018 MLS Playoffs were completely dominated by goalkeepers who were developed in the US. The western conference final witnessed Tim Melia and Jeff Attinella, two goalkeepers largely overlooked for the majority of their careers. Now they’re two of the top ten goalkeepers in the USMNT player pool. It’s hard not to imagine what type of goalkeeper they would have turned into if their middle-20’s were taken more seriously by that guy that keeps dropping the pizza on the ground.

We finally arrive in Harrison to look at how the Red Bulls are doing and oh god what happened to Ryan Meara? Wasn’t this the same goalkeeper that was red hot in 2012? Sure, the emergence of Luis Robles and untimely injuries made it a tough juggling act for the Red Bulls but shouldn’t 2019 be Meara’s coming out party? He’s 28. Robles is 34. Perfect time to make the switch and yet no one is asking for it. It’s almost as if the Red Bulls left the Meara pizza sitting in the oven for too long and now the customers are going to be really disappointed when it’s finally presented (if ever) to them.

Yes, it’s true that Meara received USL and USOC games but let me just go ahead and point out the overflowing barrel full of USL goalkeepers that MLS teams aren’t calling up, for better or for worse. And yes, it’s great that Meara has essentially earned (lemme check) ten games a year…? Against USL and amateur teams…?

Oh, wait, actually that’s not really great at all. That’s worse than what the college game has to offer. Not to mention that Meara isn’t even an academy product. Louro and Mike Lansing (who helped his club reach the quarterfinals of the Danish Cup) are the only professional goalkeepers that the academy has produced that are still in the pro ranks.

Louro still has some time until the jury decides how he’s been developed. So we’ll put him aside for now. However when it comes to Meara, his greatest contribution for the Red Bulls might just be when he played secret agent and managed to steal points away from NYC. Again, it wasn’t an easy situation for the Red Bulls to balance Robles and Meara. You had two good goalkeepers, one coming back from a massive injury. But whatever excuse there is for Meara essentially getting peanuts over the past six years, no one is point to that time and say “That’s how you develop an MLS goalkeeper!”

RBNY grade on getting young goalkeepers MLS-ready: D-

The Final Countdown

Discussion around goalkeeper development has taken an odd turn in the twenty-first century, with a heavier importance being put on a goalkeeper’s ability to hit a ball accurate 40 yards and pull out upper 90 highlight reel saves. Brad Friedel (another very good goalkeeper) hinted at the change in focus recently, stating that the primary job of a goalkeeper was “stopping the ball from going in the back of the goal.”

That’s not to say a goalkeeper can’t spend time on his distribution, but the goals created from connecting passes are far outweighed by the goals disallowed in stopping shots. This is a very contentious subject so I’m not trying to wrap it up in a few sentences but either way, the development process does feel very aimless at the moment.

When surveying the league, teams are still consistently outsourcing player development down routes (college, USL, loans elsewhere, simply being a practice player) that have a microscopic success rate. Looking at the Red Bulls, I have a hard time getting too optimistic. In addition to the USL side struggling to produce talented U25 goalkeepers,

Meara is essentially in the same position that Jeff Attinella was years ago: playing an endless waiting game that may or may not give him a fair shot. If I had to guess, whenever Robles finally steps down (in 2021?), New York is going to tell Meara he’s too old and doesn’t have enough experience (i.e games played) to take over the position. Even though we love to read neat headlines about a player playing every minute in a season, it’s actually lost first-team opportunities for the backup. It’s akin to the team telling us “Yeah we didn’t trust our backup to get one game this year.”

While the Red Bulls haven’t wasted their time in bringing in a foreigner who couldn’t cut it (maybe the whole Frank Rost thing actually paid off some dividends), they certainly have wasted their time with handling Meara and haven’t done as well with the second team as one would think when looking at the massive academy pipeline.

Where does this leave the Red Bulls? Well after having since 2013 to plan their post-Robles era, all hopes lay on Meara and Louro. It’s more than what a number of MLS teams have (the Rapids’ three goalkeepers have an average age of over 32), but it’s also less than what they could have. For an academy system that is routinely sending 1-2 goalkeepers every year to top D1 programs, there should be a line out the door of homegrowns waiting to take over the position. Instead, Robles is likely to hold the starting spot until the last possible moment.

Photo by Bill Twomey Photography

About Joseph Goldstein

Joseph Goldstein is the managing editor of RBNN as well as the co-host of the Seeing Red and Raising Bulls podcasts.

View all posts by Joseph Goldstein →

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