[SA POSITIONAL RANKINGS] As the 2011 MLS season gets underway, Soccer America begins its rankings of each team by position with a listing of the goalkeeping corps. The addition of expansion teams Vancouver and Portland have wrought changes in the careers of many players, including veteran goalkeepers Jay Nolly, Joe Cannon and Troy Perkins. Nolly and Cannon are battling for the starting job in Vancouver, while Perkins is dueling with another MLS veteran – former Rev Adin Brown – to man the nets for Portland.
With an expanded 34-game schedule and thus greater chances of losing a keeper to injury or suspension, depth is a more important factor than in past seasons. The Quakes found this out last year, when Jon Busch temporarily deposed Cannon for the starting job, then finished strongly after a broken ankle sidelined Cannon in late August. Ditto in Columbus, where injury sidelined Will Hesmer and sometimes starter Andy Gruenebaum took over. And there’s always the chance that wild-man Thierry Henry will whack another keeper, a la Kevin Hartman, to the sidelines.
Factors used in evaluating the MLS goalkeeping tandems are based on age, experience, past performance, and projected ability. Teams with two good, experienced keepers might be deemed stronger than a team with a clearcut starter but no reliable backup. A team’s goalkeepers -- not just the probable starter -- drive the rankings.
1. REAL SALT LAKE. Nick Rimando just signed a new long-term deal, which should keep RSL’s netminding in safe hands for a few seasons. Kyle Reynish has looked sharp in his occasional appearances.
2. LOS ANGELES. Starter Donovan Ricketts is among the league’s best and backup Josh Saunders could start for a few MLS teams. Niggling injuries to Ricketts might give Saunders more time this year.
3. FC DALLAS. Kevin Hartman, a.k.a. Mr. Lights-Out, dazzled last season and under his tutelage maybe Chris Seitz and Josh Lambo can smooth out their rough spots.
4. COLUMBUS. Will Hesmer and Andy Gruenebaum may not be in the very top tier but both are good, with Hesmer rating slightly higher for his poise and quickness.
5. SEATTLE. Expect Kasey Keller, turning 42 this year, to make his final pro season a memorable one. His health is critical, as No. 2 Terry Boss has 45 minutes of MLS experience and Supplementary Draft pick Josh Ford just signed this week.
6. COLORADO. With a reliable defense in front of him, for a change, Matt Pickens last year displayed his class. Ian Joyce joined the Rapids last year from Southend, where he played five games before making one appearance for Colorado.
7. TORONTO FC. Not because of himself but rather his situation, goalkeeper Stefan Frei is likely to endure another long season. He’s really, really good. Milos Kocic couldn’t keep a job at keeper-challenged D.C. United. TFC needs an alternative.
8. NEW ENGLAND. Matt Reis will be 36 at the end of March yet he’s still a commanding presence. Backups Bobby Shuttleworth and Tim Murray have exactly two MLS league appearances combined; Shuttleworth posted a shutout last October in his first start.
9. SAN JOSE. Even amongst keepers, Jon Busch is among the looniest, but he’s also quick and brave and capable of the sensational save. If he keeps the ball out of the net and Andrew Weber on the bench, his teammates and coaches will endure his -- shall we say -- energy.
10. NEW YORK. Bouna Coundoul is a bit off but mostly in a good way. Less erratic and more composed than in past seasons, he won 14 games and posted 11 shutouts last year. A similar performance in 2011 would move NYRB up the rankings. Greg Sutton is OK at No. 2.
11. SPORTING KANSAS CITY. Jimmy Nielsen won four Save of the Week awards but let in a few clunkers, as well. In his second MLS season he should improve and he’d better, since backup Eric Kronberg is very raw.
12. CHICAGO. Sean Johnson has great physical tools and displayed more than a sliver of maturity in his rookie season. Can he go the distance backing a team that seems to be constantly in flux? Jon Conway has had his moments in MLS but isn’t quite starter caliber.
13. CHIVAS USA. Zach Thornton’s game slipped last year yet he can rebound with a new coach and some new teammates, like Jimmy Conrad. Dan Kennedy needs to get minutes or his development will stagnate.
14. VANCOUVER. Joe Cannon won two Goalkeeper of the Year Awards back in the day but fell behind Jay Nolly during preseason while rehabbing that broken ankle. With far more experience than Nolly, if he gets back fully fit, he can be a valuable asset on a new team.
15. PORTLAND. Troy Perkins is given a fresh start to erase last year’s rough season at D.C. United, and Adin Brown can push him for the No. 1 job. Still to be proven is if they can consistently measure up to a more demanding caliber of play.
16. D.C. UNITED. Emergency signing/ assistant coach Pat Onstad is 43, veteran Steve Cronin has never held down a first-team spot in MLS, and youngster Bill Hamid is amazingly athletic yet terribly inexperienced. Not good, but destined to improve.
17. HOUSTON. The Dynamo’s situation would look better if Onstad was still in Texas. Tally Hall has been waiting in the wings for years yet his appearances to date are inconclusive. Homegrown signing Tyler Deric is completely untested.
18. PHILADELPHIA. Given the Union’s terrible experiences last year with Brad Knighton and Chris Seitz, Colombian newcomer Faryd Mondragon is an upgrade, but as yet he’s unproven in MLS.