Backline: Making keepers feel unbeatable

The latest project for Tim Mulqueen, the USA's goalkeeper coach for all ages, comes with this summer's Olympic Games, which mark his fourth world championship on the U.S. bench.

Mulqueen, perhaps best known for training Tim Howard from age 12 through the pros, says tournament preparation differs significantly from the year-round coaching he did in MLS with the MetroStars and Kansas City, or at the U.S. Soccer U-17 Residency Program.

"When you're training keepers everyday, you're so in tuned with where they are physically and mentally," says Mulqueen, who also coached Tony Meola at the MetroStars and when he was MLS League MVP with Kansas City as it won the 2000 title. "When guys come in for a tournament, there's a heavy emphasis on sharpness. We quickly gauge their form and fitness, then we do a ton of repetition training."

Mulqueen also provides the keepers with scouting DVDs to familiarize them with the opponents' set plays and attacking tendencies.
"And I talk to the keeper to discover things they like that their club coach does so I can incorporate it," says Mulqueen, who also checks in with the keepers' club coaches. "There's something to be said for a goalkeeper's confidence with certain routines and exercises that make them feel like they're unbeatable."

After playing at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's University, Mulqueen become assistant coach at Rutgers while playing USL ball.

Mulqueen met Howard, now an English Premier League star and the USA's No. 1 keeper, when as a 12-year-old Howard attended Mulqueen's camps. He coached Howard with the New Jersey Cosmos at the U-15 and U-16 levels.

Howard, who credits Mulqueen with facilitating his maturation as a player and a person, played for the USL's New Jersey Imperials, whose head coach was Mulqueen, before joining the MetroStars (now Red Bulls), where Mulqueen served as assistant coach.

Mulqueen cites the backgrounds of Howard and Meola to demonstrate how beneficial a well-rounded sports experience is. Both also played center forward. Meola excelled at baseball, Howard at basketball.

Mulqueen says playing other sports helped them with their footwork and eye-hand coordination. Playing field positions in soccer honed their passing skills and game-reading.

That's why Mulqueen says young players shouldn't specialize too early.

"It's important to learn what it's like to be a soccer player," he says, "because a goalkeeper is just a soccer player who can use his hands. It's very important to understand what it's like to be a field player. They'll let you know when they're ready to be a full-time goalkeeper and they'll gravitate to it naturally."

Mulqueen was the USA's keeper coach at the 2005 and 2007 U-17 World Cups, and the 2007 U-20 World Cup, where the USA reached the quarterfinals.

The U-20 tournament was a highlight for Mulqueen because of the performance of backup keeper Brian Perk, named starter for the round of 16 game against Uruguay because of an injury to Chris Seitz.

"Brian didn't play at the U-17 World Cup in 2005," Mulqueen says, "but he made the U-20 World Cup squad.  He finds out at 3 p.m. on game day he's going to start, makes several key plays, and helps us win the game. It was a great feeling that he was properly prepared and a great accomplishment for him."

Mulqueen says goalkeepers need to have exceptional athletic ability, smarts to read the game, the ability to organize and the courage "to put themselves in harm's way."

They must be very strong-minded individuals to handle the pressure of the job and its ups and downs.

Says Mulqueen, "At the U-17s we had a saying: Goalkeepers need to have a short memory. Whether they make the best save or give up the worst goal, they need to get it out of their system and move on to the next play."

(This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.) 

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