Goalkeepers Are Different

[ANALYSIS] Did goalkeeper Hope Solo or Coach Greg Ryan, or both, permanently impair their national-team futures, and is their dispute just another example of an American coach clashing with his keeper(s)? Steve Sampson and Bruce Arena infuriated both Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel by platooning them, and on the eve of the 1994 World Cup round of 16 match against Brazil (some irony, there), coach Bora Milutinovic seriously pondered dropping Tony Meola in favor of Friedel because he believed Meola's public comments about trying out for an NFL team as a placekicker called into question his focus, not to mention his priorities. English soccer journalist Brian Glanville wrote a book, "Goalkeepers Are Different," which is a novel, not a declaration of truth. Still, physically, temperamentally, and psychologically, they are unlike field players.

The harsh consequences of mistakes, the yin-yang dichotomy of quiet intervals and frenzied chaos, and nervous bond between starter and backup(s) roil their psyches uniquely. Both Keller and Friedel chafed under the platooning, but both played well for the U.S. despite their unhappiness. Neither had been declared No. 1 and then had the rug whipped out from under them on the eve of a critical match.

Milutinovic might have made the move but in the run-up to the 1994 World Cup Friedel's play, while competent, hadn't - in Milutinovic's judgment - instilled sufficient confidence in his teammates to face a power like Brazil.

Keepers need not only their own self-confidence but mutual trust and belief from their teammates. And above all else, in big games, a team needs a keeper who can stop everything that's stoppable and pull off a few dazzlers as well. Friedel did just that in the 2002 World Cup. Meola's memorable performance in the 1989 qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago is nearly forgotten in the wake of Paul Caligiuri's historic goal, and the day he stoned England in Foxboro Stadium is a classic.

Keller's heroics in World Cup qualifiers and Gold Cup triumphs are well-documented; just ask Romario.

Ryan certainly erred in dropping Solo for experienced but rusty veteran Briana Scurry for the Women's World Cup semifinal against Brazil, not that a razor-sharp Scurry nor a tournament-honed Solo could have been expected to stave off incessant waves of attacks from a clearly superior opponent.

But his jarring switch certainly unsettled and perhaps unhinged his team, and provoked a fierce post-match tirade by Solo during which she not only savaged Ryan's decision but Scurry's play as well.

If U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati decides to replace Ryan, which seems all but inevitable given the consequences of his semifinal decisions, he'll have to find someone who can patch up the squad quickly and get the program back on course. And is there a future on the team for Solo, who publicly dissed the most successful keeper in U.S. history, with two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup title in her resume?

The 2008 Olympics is less than a year away, yet FIFA is set to announce a whole new program of female competitions.

Next year, for the first time, it will stage U-17 and U-20 tournaments as well as the Olympics, and the timing for U.S. Soccer couldn't be worse. Ryan's selection and the course of the women's program came under criticism from several former players, such as Julie Foudy, who recommended former Swedish international Pia Sundhage, among others, to take over.

Mia Hamm expressed concern that countries had caught up to, and perhaps surpassed, the U.S. in technique and tactics as well as physical prowess.

Scurry heroically held off Brazil in the 2004 Olympic gold-medal match, which the U.S. won in overtime on an Abby Wambach goal.

Surely Brazil felt 2007 had to be its time, given the ebb and flow of luck and departure of several U.S. veterans. Perhaps Ryan believed it, too, for he cited Scurry's quickness as a reason she'd be better able to deal with Brazil.

Implicit in that line of reasoning is Ryan didn't believe his players, not just Solo, could blot out Brazil's skill and daring and speed.

Solo let a shot slip through her hands to give North Korea its first goal in the group stage, but her play since then had been solid. She'd earned the No. 1 job, presumably and done nothing to lose it. Yet lose it, for the most important game in her U.S. career, she did.

Keller once said if he was playing well, be it for club or country, he expected to keep the spot. Period. If he played poorly, he'd know why he lost it. But losing it despite playing well, he said, he just couldn't accept.

Coaches can juggle field players into other positions, but the keeper can starkly identify the competition. There's no middle ground. One starts, one sits. Goalkeepers are not only different, they are not interchangeable parts. A team becomes accustomed to the characteristics, quirks, tendencies, habits, and even voice of their guardian who can redeem their mistakes with a brave save, or betray their efforts by fumbling or stumbling.

Their existence is binary: success or failure, save or goal, do or don't, start or sit. As a tentative, unsettled U.S. scrambled to contain Brazil from the opening minute, Scurry tried to reconnect with her teammates. She had taken a lengthy break from the national team following the 2004 Olympics because of the death of her father, and though she'd worked her way back into shape, Solo kept the starter's jersey.

Scurry played the full 90 against Brazil in a friendly June 23; since then she'd played 45 minutes against New Zealand Aug. 12.

The first goal, an own goal, should have been averted. A poorly hit inswinging corner would have bounced right to Scurry in the goal area had not midfielder Leslie Osborne stooped awkwardly to head it. Scurry should have been screaming for it long before it reached Osborne.

But either Scurry didn't call loudly enough or early enough, or Osborne had already committed to heading the ball, for it glanced off her right temple and flashed past Scurry into the net. Osborne gets the blame. Yet a great play by Scurry might have plucked the ball or cleared it. But she hadn't been in pressure situations, she hadn't been honed by hard shots and twisting crosses and goalmouth melees, she hadn't been making lightning-quick decisions to come or stay, to punch or catch, to parry or block.

Soccer, like most sports at the highest level, is a game of inches, yet in a congested goalmouth, it's a matter of centimeters and milliseconds.

The second goal, hit low by Marta as she cut inside from the right flank, glanced off Scurry's left hand and nestled inside the post. Again, centimeters and milliseconds; a keeper must shuffle her feet in short, quick steps to maintain the proper angle as a player moves the ball across the goalmouth, but once the keeper senses a shot or pass is coming, the shuffling stops, the feet are set, and the body tenses to dive left or right, charge forward, or backpedal.

Marta shot to Scurry's left, the keeper lunged and got a glove to the ball, yet it still hit the net. A centimeter more glove on the ball, diving a few milliseconds quicker, and who knows?

Former U.S. women's coach and TV commentator Tony DiCicco, a keeper in his playing days as well as a trainer of keepers, commented he'd seen Scurry save those shots in the past.

It might have been age (36) that cost Scurry that goal, but more likely, just that last layer of rust meant the difference between pushing the ball wide of the post for a corner kick and not deflecting it enough.

Much more than the sagas of Solo and Scurry and Ryan defined this disappointing result.

The U.S. inability to keep possession in midfield starved attackers Kristine Lilly, Heather O'Reilly, Lori Chalupny and Wambach of opportunities to test Brazil's defense. A second caution to Shannon Boxx, a questionable decision but not outrageous given her rather clumsy challenge on Cristiane, reduced the U.S. to 10 players for the second half.

Ryan elected not to bring on offensive options Lindsay Tarpley, Aly Wagner and Natasha Kai to overcome the two-goal deficit, and second-half goals by Cristiane and Marta affirmed but didn't flatter Brazil's superiority.

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