How Youth Goalkeeper Development In The MLS Is Changing Clubs' Transfer Focus

By Alex Roberts

News • May 29, 2024

How Youth Goalkeeper Development In The MLS Is Changing Clubs' Transfer Focus

The USA's second golden goalkeeping generation means fewer clubs are reaching for big name, older goalkeeper signings.

Lionel Messi’s move to Inter Miami made headlines across the globe. It’s arguably the biggest thing to happen to American soccer since David Beckham moved to Los Angeles 17 years ago. Now Messi works for Golden Balls, and the MLS’ age-old policy of bringing ageing superstars to the league is seemingly alive and well.

From Pele to Franz Beckenbauer, this has been the case since the 70s, but the winds of change are blowing. Clubs up and down the States are starting to put more resources into youth development, on a more sustainable track. Young American goalkeepers are prospering as a result.

Perhaps the most notable is Addison, Illinois’ very own Gabriel Slonina. The now 19-year-old shot stopper has been breaking records since his early teens. At 14 he was Chicago Fire’s youngest ever signing, at 17 he became the MLS’ youngest starting goalkeeper.

This incredible rise caught the attention of Chelsea’s scouting team, and Slonina was signed for $10 million, potentially rising to $11 million should certain stipulations be met. The second biggest sale in the Fire’s history.

Slonina remained at Chicago on loan until the end of the 2022 MLS season before joining up with his parent club. He now finds himself in Belgium, playing regular football for KAS Eupen. 

Chicago seems like a good place to be a young goalkeeper. They wasted no time in replacing Slonina with another exciting prospect in Chris Brady. The 20-year-old was last season’s youngest regular starting goalkeeper, and rightfully so.

Although the 2023 season was an underwhelming one for Chicago Fire, Brady’s emergence was a highlight for the club. Nine clean sheets in 30 MLS appearances mean he’s nailed down his spot between the sticks for his hometown club. 

Slonina may still hold the title of the MLS’ youngest ever starting goalkeeper, but he’s no longer the youngest to start a senior game. That record belongs to Real Salt Lake’s Gavin Beavers. Beavers made his senior debut for RSL’s USL Championship affiliate, Real Monarchs, at the tender age of 16. 

Already standing at 6 ft 4 in, Beavers already towers above most of his more experienced teammates.Perhaps some people are just genetically predisposed to break the hearts of opposing forwards. 

Beavers is now 18, and although he’s not Real Salt Lake’s first choice goalkeeper just yet, he’s gaining valuable experience. He has the whole world in his giant hands - don’t be surprised when he’s joining up with Slonina and Brady for the national team in a few years.

For most people, being 23 years old means you’re not far off your childhood years. For football fans, it’s the age a player should start establishing themselves as a key component for whichever club they’re playing for. Columbus Crew’s Patrick Schulte has done exactly that.

Fortuitously for Schulte, visa issues with ex-first choice goalkeeper, Eloy Room, gave him the chance to impress in his first MLS start in 2023. Since then, Schulte hasn’t looked back, and Room has been shipped off to Vitesse Arnhem. 

With Schulte leading from the back, Columbus Crew won the MLS Cup in 2023 - their second in three years. The young American even made his international debut, conceding the only goal in a 1-0 friendly loss to Slovenia.

Of course, there are clubs that haven’t yet seen the light and would rather stick with the tried and tested method of signing more experienced goalkeepers, with varying success.

In 2021, Los Angeles FC brought in Kenneth Vermeer, hoping the veteran Dutchman would be the man to guide them to glory. Vermeer started well, and impressive performances in pre-season and on his MLS debut had fans dreaming.

Unfortunately for all parties, some high-profile mistakes drew the ire of LAFC fans. A 2-0 loss to rivals LA Galaxy and a 3-1 drubbing by Seattle Sounders saw Vermeer drop to the bench. He’s now back in his native Holland, playing for PEC Zwolle.

LAFC looked to Europe once more, this time luring Hugo Lloris from a rainy north London to the bright lights of Los Angeles. Lloris knew his time at Spurs was up after 12 years of dutiful service.

Despite winning a World Cup, Lloris may be one of the most underrated goalkeepers of his generation. The 37-year-old Frenchman signed for Los Angeles FC for the 2024 season, saying he already knew the city because he’d played so much GTA 5.

The move to the States came with Lloris’ Premier League reputation in its lower ebbs, after a difficult last season at Tottenham Hotspur. 

Another goalkeeper looking to reestablish himself back in his home country is Zack Steffen. The 28 year old became Manchester City’s number two in 2019. That’s no mean feat. He’s a goalkeeper that forms something of a model for young American pros coming through club youth systems. 

“The crop of goalkeepers that we have playing from the US at the moment - Zack Steffen, Matt Turner, Ethan Horvath, Gaga Slonina - I think that group is probably the crop that is the most ‘developed’ that the US has had”, says Colorado Rapids goalkeeper coach Chris Sharpe, speaking to 

Speaking about whether the US soccer system was looking to develop a framework equivalent to England’s ‘Goalkeeper DNA’, the Rapids man explained that “these goalkeepers are a hybrid of both the old guard and the new guard. The new guard is coming through to be part of that new developed goalkeeper in the way that the game is trending right now for the goalkeepers.”

Steffen was one of many American goalkeeping exports to the Premier League when he joined Guardiola’s side. It’s an allure that Sharpe can understand, but notes that the attitude of MLS sides towards the retention of their star talent is strong.

“I think Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, they're always going to have the glamour, being the shiny object for any young player. But goalkeepers are being given chances at much younger ages now here in the MLS. They're playing well, they're grabbing their chances. And I think clubs now are wanting to keep their best players as opposed to selling them on.” 

“Gaga [Gabriel Slonina] is a good example of that. Same with Djordje Petrovic at Chelsea. Djordje came here from Serbia and his 18 months here didn’t just put him in the shop window. They developed him via match experience into a goalkeeper Chelsea wanted to buy for big money”, he continues. 

There are other factors that also come into play as the MLS’ commercial profile only increases. 

“I do feel that there is a bit of a shift in that the league is getting better, and getting bigger in salaries. There is going to be here, in the next couple of years, the opportunity for these young goalkeepers to stay here and want to stay here and play in MLS as a league that is getting better and better which I think is fantastic for US Soccer.”

The scouting focus varies between MLS clubs, but the league had a good record with developing talents from the Nordics and Eastern Europe. Transfer fees tend to be smaller. Sharpe also points to a South American influence, citing Orlando City veteran Pedro Gallese as a model for goalkeepers coming from that region. Nonetheless, in a salary cap and homegrown quota-based league, utilising homegrown talent is vital. 

Two factors have played a part in the contemporary development of more youth goalkeeper talent. 

“I think for the MLS, the introduction of the MLS Next Pro system has been important”, the Rapids coach explains. 

“Not just for goalkeepers, for all the players, it’s really beneficial to keep them in house. They have their online schooling at the training facility. And we're able to keep them in our pathway and progress them in our philosophy, through our methodologies, for longer”. 

The second factor that Sharpe points to is the increased emphasis on the coach-educator role within US Soccer. It is a process undergoing transformation - and one that the Aussie coach has been a part of recently - and will continue to evolve under Fabian Otte, arriving as the new Head of Goalkeeping for the US Men’s National Team.


Since he returned to the US, Zack Steffen has been joined by another former Premier League goalkeeper. LAFC has somewhat gone against the grain in signing Hugo Lloris in what was deemed a huge commercial coup for the club, as well as a fruitful on-pitch signing. 

On the other end of the spectrum, St Louis City SC defied all expectations by becoming Western Conference regular season champions in 2023, thanks in no small part to Roman Burki. With 123 saves and eight clean sheets in 33 starts, the ex-Dortmund player was voted goalkeeper of the year.

Neither policy is an exact science, nothing in football is. There will be success found by clubs who peruse both avenues, but the MLS is changing, and this pursuit of youth may be what finally turns it into a major competitor to Europe’s snobby elite.

Players like Slonina, Brady, Beavers, and Schulte are just the beginning. They have every opportunity to herald a golden age for a nation that has a habit of producing fantastic goalkeepers. 

It won’t be long before they become household names.

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