Goalkeepers and the MLS, so often over-looked?

Steve Clark, Columbus Crew goalkeeper

Not being one entirely at ease with the contractual structuring of Major League Soccer, nonetheless, a succinct survey of the few chosen ‘Designated Players’ appeared to suggest an expected level of conformity. The financial primer afforded to a club’s catalogue bought superstar (no assembly required) is parted with under the impression that it shall be retained.

That North American clubs continually look to recruit players who on occasion surpass the technical ability but never the mass appeal of the ground-breaking David Beckham suggests, that for the time being at least, a tiered pay-scale is working and money spent is being recouped.

Grounded in the fiscal realities of a growing league – and here my limited knowledge may prove telling – is that amongst the forty-four designated players listed for the MLS season which concluded last weekend, not one goalkeeper was deemed worthy of ‘designation’. Potentially due to the lack of a suitable goalkeeping participant, it appears likelier that in an effort to adhere to the long-standing trope of striking success for soccer in the States, a team relying on safe hands may face the ignominy of empty stands and reduced commercial windfall.

In truth, five to ten minutes of scouring for statistical proof of a negative knock-on effect revealed little by way persuasion. In comparison with the English Premier League 13/14, MLS 2014 boasted a 0.1 increase on the Premier League’s goals per game average.

While Robbie Keane, Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry occasionally lure European interest in the result of an MLS game on a Monday morning, these stars far beyond the peak of their powers may remain competitive, often excelling, but rarely indicating a sustained period of consolidated pressure on the apparently less relevant position of goalkeeper.

It is not a league unusually awash with goals. Similarly ill-conceived however is the view that acquiring these established players is a gimmick in its entirety, or an operative effort to financially bolster the few while rarely affording an advance for the whole. They attribute a genuine touch of class and a source of public interest – albeit fleeting – to a league dreaming big.

Whitecaps against Columus CrewYet, it is a system intrinsically flawed in its short-sightedness. Mirroring the eventual conclusion, Con Houlihan noted upon seeing a Cork Celtic clad George Best for the second of three appearances in the winter of 1975/76, the wearying crowd that replaced the adulating masses of his ‘debut’ proved that ‘you don’t pay twice to see the same fat-man in the circus sideshow.’ It would be ill-judged to suggest that the likes of Keane in particular, MLS 2014’s Most Valuable Player, were resituating themselves on a financial impetus alone.  Yet, at what juncture can/will MLS remove itself from the realm of relying on the appeal of established stars and attempt to mould a self-supporting infrastructure in its place?

Whether it be via commercial demands or design, the lack of a designated goalkeeper amongst forty-four designated outfield players does not arouse suspicion. You would need to go twenty-plus deep into the most expensive transfer fees commanded in European football before coming across Gianluigi Buffon’s £32.6 million move from Parma to Juventus in 2001. The unrelenting desire or foolhardy spending of Italian clubs when poised with acquiring a goalkeeper somewhat distorts this figure further.

Goalkeepers, for a reason I cannot wholly ascertain, remain prone to undervaluation of both their relative market value and importance to a team. The forlorn gravity of ‘the goalkeeper’ is a topic astoundingly dissected and developed in Jonathan Wilson’s The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper. A solemn appreciation of Wilson’s insight into all things football leaves me with little ground for plotting an additional take on the position. However, for a few moments I will let my curiosity run.

The unlikely duo of Neville & Carragher is yet to elapse as a ‘marmite’ scenario. Their respective success-laden, one-club, local lad careers make for an entertaining insight into what it may be like to argue with one’s own self.

On Monday night, prior to Everton v QPR, Gary Neville’s assessment and demonstrative video evidence of David De Gea’s improvement as a goalkeeper since his arrival at Manchester United proved compelling. While the particulars were summed up succinctly by Neville, what became utterly apparent was the sheer effort De Gea must have exuded in training ground routines on the back of what surely was exceedingly insightful professional advice.

That such tastemakers as Neville & Carragher elucidated this corner-turning performance on the back of Manchester United beating Liverpool 3-0 will never hold up out of context.  From their previous meeting in March of last season, the diverse path taken by both clubs concerned is now palpable. On March 16, 2014, Luis Suárez was Liverpool’s undoubted star. Last Sunday afternoon, David De Gea was unrelenting in his fortitude. March 16th saw Luis Suárez score once as De Gea conceded three and save four in a 3-0 win for Liverpool. Last Sunday witnessed De Gea halt nine Liverpool efforts on target as Manchester United received a fifty-percent return on their six targeted efforts. Without becoming too mired in these details, although Manchester United arguably outperformed Liverpool last Sunday and certainly improved upon their performance of March 6th, why was De Gea busier on the triumphant day, and why isn’t it a concern?

Ultimately, De Gea is benefitting from an approach of play introduced to Manchester United by Louis van Gaal. From – for use of a better idiom and explanation – the Dutch model of play that sprouted most famously Guardiola’s Barcelona experience, United, in an as of yet far less convincing display, are evoking the traits of a high, pressing game that will ultimately leave a goalkeeper exposed from time to time. That De Gea has been so convincing, and that United are becoming ruthlessly efficient in their taking of chances will not hide the fact that sloppiness has been a cruel indictment of an ever-changing defence. De Gea’s nine saves in a 3-0 win skews what appears a routine victory. However, in what remains a period of transition for a Manchester United post-Ferguson, the established trust placed in the hands of De Gea three years upon arrival is proving beneficial. The continued behind the scenes work has been similarly essential.

On an evolutionary scale, it is perhaps unfair to subject the MLS to the level of expertise and importance that Europeans at large now afford to football. In North America, football remains closer to a hobby than a continental intuition as is the case in Europe. Growth of that stature may never truly be possible when native games hold such prominence.

In the goalkeeper, we find the measure of a team’s willingness to advance. For better or worse, it is the application of a goalkeeper to a team’s tactical intentions that designates where along this evolutionary scale they are placed. The awareness of De Gea’s importance to Van Gaal’s plans – although he will want his defenders to reign in the work De Gea needs to do – is akin to Manuel Neuer’s role in the teams of Guardiola and Joachim Löw. For as long as flair and appeasing the gathered crowds’ pendant for a big name from a European league determines the agenda of MLS clubs, a ‘footballing’ enlightenment aroused in Europe may never break the border of these United States.

By
Arthur James O'Dea, 22, student of American Literature, writer of football articles, appreciate feedback on either. Can be found on twitter @ArthurJames91
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