Land of the bald, home of the Friedel. Where has American goalkeeping been, and where is it heading?
Some may argue that the American people are still yet to truly take to soccer. Yet, it is undeniable that the nation has had a knack of producing goalkeepers of the highest quality. We aim to explore the history of that, as well as highlighting some of the best goalkeepers the nation’s top league has to offer, both for right now, and for the future.
Major League Soccer was set up in 1993 as part of the USA’s successful bid to host the 1994 World Cup. Excluding its infamy amongst English football fans because “it’s football, not soccer”, the MLS has remained in the footballing eye for all of its 30 year history. From being the only league to have its own form of penalty shootout, to being what some fans called a ‘retirement home’ for Europe’s aged elite players, it has had its quirks too.
The MLS has also had a rich history of exporting talent to Europe. In recent years, the likes of Alphonso Davies and Tyler Adams have shined, while Clint Dempsey is the best example from yesteryear. But it seems the MLS’ main export over the years has been richest in one position: goalkeeping.
While Juergen Sommer became the first American goalkeeper to play in the Premier League in 1995 for Queen’s Park Rangers, his career had only begun at Indiana University. It was a young Casey Keller who became the first goalkeeper to leave an American professional team for Europe when he left Portland Timbers in 1990 to join Millwall. Keller would go on to have a journeyman’s career across Europe, playing for Tottenham Hotspur, Rayo Vallecano and Borrussia Monchengladbach before returning to the MLS with Seattle Sounders for the twilight end of his career.
Keller is perhaps most famous for his clean sheet against Brasil in 1998, making ten saves and earning the respect of legendary forward Romario, who dubbed his performance as ‘the best by any goalkeeper in history’. Given that Keller was famous for having no hair and his performances on the international stage, you could say Keller walked so Tim Howard could run.
From 1997 onwards, the Golden Age of MLS goalkeeping exports began. Brad Friedel joined Liverpool in 1998 after spending a season at MLS club Columbus Crew, having had work permits denied three times that prevented him from joining Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United, and Sunderland. He also played one season in Turkey for Galatasaray under Graeme Sounness in 1995, where he won the Turkish Cup before transferring to the MLS.
Friedel’s career is best defined by consistency well into his older years, although there are other quirks worth mentioning. He is only one of six Premier League goalkeepers to score a goal, with his last minute poachers finish to equalise against Charlton eventually coming to nothing as Blackburn Rovers lost 3-2. He was also once compared to superman by Southampton manager Gordon Strachan, who said to the press after Friedel’s impressive performance in 2002 that the goalkeeper ‘must have got changed out his super suit in a telephone box’ beforehand.
His MLS career was brief, although in his only season he did win MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, an award also won by every single goalkeeper that has also left the MLS for the Premier League since.
On the subject of bald MLS goalkeepers named Brad, Brad Guzan was also an MLS Goalkeeper of the year who amusingly joined Brad Friedel at Aston Villa in 2007, meaning both their goalkeepers were bald Americans with the same first name. Despite making 141 Premier League appearances, Guzan’s crowning career achievement is surely when he was mic’d up and interviewed a string of MLS All-Star matches.
And similar to Brad Friedel, his USMNT teammate Tim Howard also is amongst the only six goalkeepers to score in the Premier League. Unlike Friedel’s more intentional and instinctive finish though, Tim Howard’s was a clearance from well within his half that got picked up by the wind and bounced over a bemused Adam Bogdan. His muted celebration at the time suggests it was more of a fluke than a perfectly calculated piece of footballing genius, but it is quite funny- and spectacular - to watch.
So where are all these MLS goalkeeping talents coming from? Why are they all bald? Why are most of them called Brad? While the answers to the last two questions are sadly unknown, there may be some evidence as to why goalkeepers are the MLS’ most lucrative export.
Unlike European countries, soccer is not the one defining sport in America. Sports scientist David Epstein claims Americans make such great goalkeepers because they grew up playing so many different sports. American football, basketball and baseball are all perfect ways of developing explosive athleticism and reacting to balls hurtling towards you at unnatural speeds.
According to David Epstein, players like Tim Howard were so successful because they learnt their own goalkeeping style implicitly through other sports, instead of being explicitly told what to do. This would help explain why many of the MLS goalkeepers exported to Europe tend to seem more unorthodox in their technique in comparison to the textbook dives of Hugo Lloris or Kasper Schmeichel.
So what is a stereotypical MLS goalkeeper? Arguably, German goalkeeper is likely to be good at one-on-ones (think Neuer), and a Spanish goalkeeper is likely to be good at passing (think tiki-taka total football), but an MLS goalkeeper is… weirdly everything. Pulling up the data and comparing the MLS to the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga has some interesting quirks.
Unsurprisingly, the data does show that La Liga has the best goalkeepers for attempted passes per 90, and the Bundesliga has the best goalkeepers for actions outside the box per ninety. In Ligue 1 and Serie A, the data is wildly inconsistent apart from statistical outliers like Marseille’s Pau Lopes who dominates in passing statistics but, you guessed it, originally came from La Liga. Although these statistical measurements are not the best determiners of goalkeeping ability, they nonetheless give a surface insight into the stylistic differences of different league's goalkeepers.
Other outliers, like the Premier League’s Alisson and Nick Pope with their outstanding sweeper data, do little to cover the less desirable showings from the other 18 starting goalkeepers. When comparing the data sets, it becomes apparent very quickly if the league goalkeeping style is defined by a certain style or not. Sudden drops in the data when ranked from best to worst suggest an irregular goalkeeping style, whereas a more bunched-up group of strong data values suggests the league’s goalkeeping style contains this certain trait.
And then there is the MLS, and the data is remarkably consistent. There are strong sweepers, distributors and shot stoppers in the league, and not just one or two statistical outliers. From the data, MLS goalkeeping is well-rounded to suit all aspects of the modern game. Each metric has a strong crop of closely-grouped goalkeepers, whether it is passes attempted per ninety, expected saves per ninety or defensive actions outside the box per ninety.
So, how good are MLS goalkeepers, and is it possible that we place a tax on them due to the American goalkeeping stereotype?
While the quality of the football in the MLS is constantly improving, it still sits far outside the ‘European Top Five’. A 2014 study found the MLS was the 10th best league in the world, while former Aston Villa and Portland Timbers defender Lee Ridgewell said the MLS was ‘about like the Championship’. In a 2017 ESPN anonymous poll, the majority of MLS players believed the league’s best team would only manage a bottom half finish in the Premier League or lower.
With that in mind, the current crop of MLS goalkeeping exports have failed to make a mark. Zack Steffen has made a string of high profile errors at the top level which cost Manchester City two trophies. Steffen was slammed by Guardian writer Andy Hunter for ‘ruining Manchester City’s treble chances’ in the 2021-2022 season. Although Pep Guardiola publicly defended the ex-MLS keeper, Steffen was shipped out to Middlesbrough on loan for the 2022/23 season.
Equally, Matt Turner is unlikely to break into the Arsenal team with the current form of Aaron Ramsdale. In an interview with Sky Sports, he even admitted his move was to be second choice and ‘to push Ramsdale’ for the time being. Still, this was preferable given the supposed poor state of training available in the MLS, as said by Matt Turner.
Time will tell whether the current MLS goalkeeping exports move elsewhere and prove their ability, but for now it seems the bench is the most popular destination for them.
Which begs the question, what’s the rush to get out of MLS?
Coverage and conversation surrounding any MLS player, and by extension goalkeeper, typically trends toward the notion of the league as “lesser” than most European top flights and puts the onus on players to leave the league at some stage of their career if they want their performances and quality to be recognised.
Even if they continue to perform admirably in the MLS, their performances are arguably devalued by the football world at large on account of the league in which they made them.
As fair as this may seem to some, as there is undeniably a difference in the quality of football in MLS compared to, for example, the Premier League, it can be massively blown out of proportion. A player is not a bad one because he plays in the MLS, nor is he a good one solely because he plays in the Premier League.
With football expanding exponentially, coupled with the long term effects of globalisation, Europe is slowly losing its monopoly on “destination” football leagues. The gap in quality is growing and the amount of excellent footballers is increasing. Those of us in Europe need to grapple with the fact that good football can and often is played outside of our continent, and recognise the quality of foreign leagues. Including, but not limited to, MLS.
So why is it that goalkeepers have traditionally been the MLS’ proudest exports? A great goalkeeper can stand out due to their more individual role, when compared to their outfield counterparts, who may find themselves hampered by teammates incapable of matching their level.
In recent years, goalkeepers leaving MLS for Europe has become more commonplace. There are obvious reasons for this. The pay is better, the prestige is greater, and it offers a chance to experience a different culture.
But leaving MLS is no longer a necessity if a player wants to define themselves as a great. The best example of this is Philadelphia Union’s Andre Blake
Blake has long since been recognized as one of, if not, the best goalkeeper(s) in the league. Since becoming a regular starter in 2016, Andre Blake has been the standard bearer for goalkeepers in the league.
He has won the MLS goalkeeper of the year award twice, he is a three time MLS all star, and won the golden glove in the 2020 “MLS is back” tournament.
At 31 years old, the prospect of Jamaican international Blake heading overseas to ply his trade seems to have come and gone, with it looking increasingly likely with each passing season that he will remain an MLS player for much, if not all, of his career.
But is this necessarily a bad thing?
It is impossible to know how his career would have progressed, had he left MLS. However, there are factors that could point to him failing to have had the same impact on whatever league he joined as he does in MLS, and therefore, moving to Europe might have hurt his career.
Currently, Blake has the luxury of being one of the elite goalkeepers in his league, being the first name on his club’s team sheet, and a shoe-in for his national team. Would he have his 63 Jamaica caps, and have led them to a gold cup final were he not playing in MLS, but rather on the bench at a Championship club? It’s difficult to say. Likewise, could the prestige of being a ‘big fish in a small pond’, respectfully, conducive to his sustained high level performance?
And Blake is far from the only example of a goalkeeper who has benefited from calling the MLS home.
Over the years, MLS has allowed a great many goalkeepers to express themselves, to play their game, their way. Sure, every now and then, someone will make it big, move over to Europe and represent America in some of football’s toughest competitions, and they deserve to be celebrated; they really do. But for more than a few goalkeepers, the MLS is the only league they're ever going to need. Perhaps we just need to start giving them more recognition for their performances in the MLS, rather than demanding a quality-control check by flying them over to Europe.