Keepers reign at critical moments

A few of my cousins played soccer, and while we were growing in Northern California and got together for holidays and other social occasions, I'd be the target of barbs and snide remarks regarding goalkeepers as a breed far inferior to those in the field.

In the midst of insults about relative lack of fitness, rare moments of action, glaring lack of foot skills or touch or other abilities essential to playing in the field - all of which were true to some extent - I'd merely smile and comment on the difficulty of winning a game without someone of even moderate competence between said sticks.

This absurdity is rooted in truth, of course, but there are goalkeepers of many shapes and forms, ages and personalities ("varying degrees of stupidity," as per my cousins). Few keepers who are any good are cowards and I would occasionally suggest my smug cousins to put on the gloves and take a stint in goal, even during a scrimmage or training session, to face shots and charges and breakaways and goalmouth skirmishes and feet flailing at their faces in an approximation of challenges and pressures keepers encounter every day.

Everybody has his or her own idea of what constitutes the ideal goalkeeper - assuming one thinks there is such a beast - but among players, executives, and coaches there are two paramount characteristics: a reliability to repel the shots that should be dealt with, thus instilling confidence and security amongst teammates that some trickling travesty won't find its way into the net, and a knack for making the big saves, those dramatic stops that break opponents' hearts and secure whatever points are already in hand.

The big saves aren't always late in the match, though in a close game they are always critical. Sometimes it's a tough save right after either team has scored, to prevent an equalizer canceling out a goal or a deficit from doubling. Goals late in the first half are always a psychological factor, so the prevention of same can be vital.

A flurry of late-match goals - one MLS team alone, D.C. United, has scored four goals in stoppage time after the regulation 90 minutes - has overshadowed a plentiful array of big saves, and last weekend's games offered up a few crucial examples along with those not made.

Chris Rolfe's goal just before halftime of the Red Bulls-Fire match eventually decided the 1-0 game, and no one accused keeper Jon Conway for allowing a cheapie. Yet just imagine the psychological jolt Conway had have given his team, which outplayed Chicago during that first half, if with a superb effort he could have pushed the ball round the goalpost.

With about 10 minutes left, Conway kept his team in the game by turning aside another good shot by Rolfe and gave it a chance to get a result, which it nearly did.

But in stoppage time, Fire keeper Jon Busch pulled off the quintessential big save. Danleigh Borman met a swerving cross with a glancing header directed just under the crossbar until Busch's desperation leap and reach flicked it over the top. With a good play on a difficult yet savable shot, Busch nailed down three points.

D.C. United needed several major moments from keeper Josh Wicks to fend off a determined effort from Real Salt Lake, which earned its first road point of 2009 with a 0-0 tie that wouldn't have been goalless if not for Wicks. He denied Robbie Findley on a clean breakaway five minutes before halftime, and in the final minute of the match deflected a long-range blast by Kyle Beckerman, then smothered Findley's header from the ensuing corner.

At Pizza Hut Park, a few stellar moments from Ray Burse and a goal scored by Drew Moor after FC Dallas had gone down a man in the 28th minute enabled FCD to carve out a 1-1 tie with the Galaxy. LA outshot FCD, 20-9, but Burse and his backline held off everything generated after Landon Donovan scored in the third minute.

All the world knows about Kasey Keller's fine work in goal as a key component for the early success of expansion entry Seattle, and the guy with the big feet came up big. He stabbed away a point-blank header by the Rapids' Conor Casey in the 34th minute, and when challenged by Rapids midfielder Nick LaBrocca on a stone-cold chance with the score, 1-1, in first-half stoppage time, Keller turned away his low shot with an incredible, elastic save. Counterpart Matt Pickens did his part late in the second half with the score, 2-2, thwarting Seattle's Steve Zakuani on a close-range opportunity.

If Matt Reis had been his usual sharp self, New England might have escaped BMO Field with a point. Not that the Revs would have deserved it, as they were outplayed, but they did take a 1-0 lead with a Shalrie Joseph header in the 13th minute. Yet TFC struck back less than minute later when Reis, screened, couldn't stop a whistling first-time shot by Amado Guevara that zipped just under the bar. He missed last week's game with a concussion and sat out four games earlier in the season due to a sore knee.

Reis really had no chance with TFC's second goal, taken nicely by Dwayne De Rosario. Yet two minutes later, a 40-yard free kick from Guevara, delivered as Danny Dichio charged at the ball, bounced past Reis into the net to kill off any chance of the Revs getting a result. Was it a tough situation for the goalie, who had to keep an eye on the ball and be ready to react in case it touched Dichio or somebody else? Absolutely. But no keeper who lets a 40-yarder bounce into his net untouched would claim to have done everything he could to prevent it.

In a league as fraught with parity as MLS, goalkeeping decides more than its fair share of games. I'm thrilled, and I'm sure my cousins are, too.

1 comment about "Keepers reign at critical moments".
  1. Timothy Justman, May 26, 2009 at 11:17 a.m.

    My only problem with MLS is the pace is too slow and no rhyme or reason behind the tactics or passing.

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