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USA finds ways to foster goalie talent

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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Historically, it's been as much a strength as it has a riddle. Only at one position has the United States consistently managed to develop world class players over the last two decades - in goal. But how and why is hard to explain.

The first three great goalkeepers the United States produced came up at a time when there was no serious professional soccer in all of North America. As goalkeepers, Tony Meola, Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel were born in the wilderness of the early 1990s soccer scene in America and raised by the sport's equivalent of wolves. Out of college careers, spells on the United States Soccer Federation payroll, glorified semi-pro minor league outdoor and indoor teams and loan spells with European clubs they cobbled together full-time goalkeeping jobs, fashioned the beginnings of entire careers. Ad hoc and without much guidance or quality coaching. But they emerged and achieved regardless.

The next great American goalkeeper to come through, Everton's Tim Howard, had it slightly easier. He joined a minor league team out of high school and was soon picked up by Major League Soccer's New York Metrostars. The league wasn't much then, but it got him on his way to England - Manchester United at first, before joining Everton.

Relatively, the newest generation of American goalkeepers – headlined by Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson, followed by Zach MacMath, Cody Cropper and Ryan Meara, all of whom are 23 or younger and have already established themselves as professionals – walks a fairly straight path to the game’s highest level. Major League Soccer has solidified, proliferated, opened academies and relaunched a competitive reserve league. There's a mechanism for player development - imperfect, but nonetheless ambitious.

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Yet the assessment of tomorrow's national team goalkeepers remains complicated. The biggest contributor to the uncertain arc of their careers is the inherent difficulty in measuring the elevation from their current abilities to the ceiling. The maturation of a goalkeeper is slow going and happens in fits and starts. “With goalkeepers you’re never sure how they’re going to mature,” says Meola, who now tutors young goalkeepers out of New Jersey. “It is more difficult to predict than for position players.”

“It’s harder to call than what we make it out to be,” Howard said late last year. “The margin for error at the highest level is so small that you can be made to look silly at times. The part of goalkeeping that we don’t see and that’s hard to measure is how thick a skin those guys have. That’s the most important part of being a goalkeeper. You figure out the angles and you cover certain areas and you learn when to come out. But the penny has to drop [mentally] at some point and for some guys it doesn’t. And it’s not like there’s a certain age where it snaps together. With goalkeeping, there’s going to be a few nicks in the bumper.”

"For young goalkeepers it is a challenge for them to stay steady and consistent," says Dan Gaspar, a Connecticut-based goalkeeping coach who has worked for pro clubs and national teams the world over. "Goalkeepers get better as they get older. Older goalkeepers seem to be at the right place at the right time. That is not by luck. It's because of their knowledge that they have acquired. Throughout their career they are making mistakes; the good ones learn and grow from these."

More problematic still is the gap that is still very much there between Major League Soccer, which, to its credit, gives young American talent ample opportunity, and, say, the Barclays  Premier League. Confidence built back home wobbles in the face of the relentless nitpicking of goalkeepers in Europe. It isn’t until an American goalkeeper arrives at the highest echelon of the professional game and gets thrown into the deep end of the European leagues that anybody can tell if he’ll sink or swim. That’s why the future of American goalkeeping is largely unknowable.

But that still doesn’t explain why the United States produces so many goalkeepers of great promise. “It’s a very athletic position and so much of it is eye-hand coordination,” says Meola, who subscribes to the school of thought that American goalies benefit from having played sports with their hands in their childhoods. “I still think that the biggest benefit to me was basketball,” reasons Meola, who played baseball - was drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school, in fact, although he never signed. Howard was a star basketball player in high school as well. So was Sean Johnson.

"That exposure to various sports produces that hand-eye coordination," says Gaspar. "Overseas, you can toss a soccer ball to an athlete and most all of them will catch the ball with every body part except their hands. If you do the same experiment in the United States, most young athletes will automatically catch with their hands."

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But some are dismissive of this theory, deeming it reductionist and arguing that the skills don’t transfer. “I don’t know what else you’d attribute it to,” argues Meola. “I attribute it to the fact that we did things in other sports and we’re very athletic. I say I started out as a great athlete and became a great goalkeeper as the years went on, with experience.”

But on this, like on most matters of American goalkeeping, there exists more discord than consensus. Which goes some way in explaining why as many observers are excited by the promise of this fivesome of young goalkeepers as those troubled by the United States national team’s goalkeeping future.

“I don’t think our goalkeeper pool is all that polished and super, super deep,” says Howard. “But I think there are guys in the pipeline. Sean and Bill are freakishly athletic and have a lot of talent. But only one goalkeeper can play [for the national team] and as long as you’re doing that, it’s hard to measure where the other guys are.”

The science of playing this highly specialized position is exact. But projecting the future of a young goalkeeper remains badly deficient in empirical evidence.

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