Getting off the carousel

Image c/o Ian Barbour https://www.flickr.com/photos/barbourians/

Image c/o Ian Barbour https://www.flickr.com/photos/barbourians/

The position of Union goalkeeper has often been the source of ridicule and derision. Throughout the team’s brief history, the man with the gloves has largely been a source of agony much to our chagrin (and much to the rest of Major League Soccer’s delight). This is the case no longer: Andre Blake leads MLS in saves (16 in 19 shots faced for an 84.2 save percentage), carrying forth his fine form from the end of last year into this year and showing why he was worth the number one overall pick in the 2014 SuperDraft. But to fully appreciate Andre and where we are now, we need to look back on those who came before him and where we were without him.

2010 goalkeepers: Chris Seitz (acquired in a trade with Real Salt Lake for allocation money and assurance the Union wouldn’t draft any RSL players in the expansion draft) and Brad Knighton (expansion draft selection from the Portland Timbers). GK who did not appear: Brian Perk and Danny Cepero.

The first year the Union came into the league, they trotted out a combination of Chris Seitz (23 appearances) and Brad Knighton (8). Seitz, the former backup to Nick Rimando in Real Salt Lake, started the first 22 games, giving up 1.86 goals a game (worst in the league for a regular starter) before being benched for Knighton. The Union were so impressed with the duo that neither returned for the next season (Seitz went into the re-entry draft and Knighton was waived).

2011 goalkeepers: Faryd Mondragon (unattached) and Zac MacMath (draft fifth overall in the 2011 SuperDraft). GK who did not appear: Chase Harrison and Thorne Holder.

Colombian national Faryd Mondragon joined the Union for the 2011 season along with draft pick Zac MacMath. Acting as club captain, Mondragon started 27 games and played superbly, garnering a 1.04 goals against average and an All-Star selection. When Faryd was injured in a match, Zac picked up the slack with a 1.14 GAA as the team went to the playoffs for the first time. After the Union was knocked out in the semis, the 40-year-old Mondragon went back to his native Colombia to finish out his career. The Union’s goalkeeper problems appeared to be over as MacMath would presumably take over the starting role.

2012 goalkeepers: Zac MacMath, Chris Konopka (signed), Chase Harrison. GK who did not appear: Brian Rowe.

The 21-year-old MacMath entered the year as the starter and appeared in 32 games.. and authored a 1.34 GAA as the team gave up 43 goals, 7 more than they did in 2011. Konopka and Harrison had an appearance apiece and the Union missed the playoffs, finishing eighth out of ten in their conference and well out of the playoffs. They went from a +8 goal differential in 2011 to a -8 in 2012.

2013 goalkeepers: Zac MacMath. GK who did not appear: Chris Konopka, Oka Nikolov

MacMath continued as the starting goalkeeper, starting all 34 MLS games. He put up a 1.29 GAA with a 68.7 save percentage while allowing 44 goals, which was essentially what he did in 2012. The offense was a bit better, making the goal differential a -2, but the Union finished seventh of ten teams in the conference and once again missed the playoffs.

2014 goalkeepers: Zac MacMath, Andre Blake (first overall pick in SuperDraft), Rais M’Bolhi (signed from CSKA Sofia). GK who did not appear: Brian Holt.

The bottom fell out for MacMath in 2014 when he posted a 1.55 GAA and saw his save percentage drop to 61.6% while allowing 45 goals in just 29 games. Instead of going with the young rookie Blake (who the Union wanted bad enough to trade assets for the first overall pick), they went out and signed Algerian World Cup hero Rais M’bolhi as then-Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz boldly trumpeted that “the Union had three of the best goalkeepers in MLS“. They certainly had one, but he was the one who would play the least: Blake only played in one game but had a 87.5(!) save percentage in that game as a hint of things to come. The acquisition complete, M’bolhi was late in joining the team after getting into a car wreck which ended up being a metaphor for his entire Union stint. Rais posted a paltry 53.8 save percentage in his four games in 2014 while assisting on the goal which cost the Union any shot at a possible playoff berth. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Could it get any worse?

2015 goalkeepers: Rais M’Bolhi, Andre Blake, John McCarthy (signed from Rochester Rhinos of the USL), Brian Sylvestre (loan from Carolina RailHawks of the NASL). GK who did not appear: Trey Mitchell 

Yes. Yes it could. After a scoreless draw against Colorado at home to start the year, the Union drew 3-3 at Real Salt Lake, then lost 2-0 to Dallas, 1-0 to last-place Chicago, and 3-2 to Sporting Kansas City. The loss to SKC was especially deflating because the Union had a 2-1 lead going into stoppage time and poor play by M’Bolhi on corners not only let SKC draw level, but three minutes later, they scored the winner too. In that five-game stretch, Rais allowed 1.8 goals a game and stopped 10 of 20 shots for a minuscule save percentage of 50%, good for worst in the league among keepers with 5 starts or more. Amid rumors he was becoming or had become a dressing room cancer and due to his general ineffectiveness, he was sent home to France and never wore the kit again, eventually agreeing to a mutual termination of his contract. Who could they turn to? Not Zac MacMath, who they traded to Colorado in the off-season. They turned to John McCarthy (1.64 GAA, 53.7% save percentage) for 11 games and Brian Sylvestre (1.58 GAA, 60% save percentage) for 12 games, partially because Blake had been injured and partially because they were still an organization without a Sporting Director/rudder. When Blake got healthy and wasn’t on international duty (mainly at the end of the season), he started 6 games, saved 76.5 percent of the shots he faced, and allowed a goal and a half a game. The numbers themselves don’t tell the story of what we saw though.

Andre Blake’s coming out party happened September 26th in New England. (New England shots in red, Union shots in blue; closed circles are goals, open circles are shots that were saved):

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New England took 20 shots. Eleven of them were on frame. Only one went in, and that was a penalty kick. Blake made 10 saves, the Union scratched out a goal in the 65th minute, and the Boys in Blue ran out of Gillette Stadium with a point they absolutely stole. That was the moment that made a lot of people say “maybe we have something in this kid”. That was the moment the Union finally got off of the goalkeeper carousel. They had their guy for now and for the future and he had been in the building since 2014. It’s funny how that happens sometimes.

So that’s a brief history of the torturous position of Union goalkeeper. To watch Blake’s command of the box and athleticism is to appreciate him, but to know what you know now is to truly value what they haven’t had since Faryd Mondragon’s only season here: a legitimate number one keeper who was used and correctly identified as a number one. The goalkeeper carousel that made us so sick stops here, and we’re all feeling better because of it.

 

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