Monday Morning Centerback: For young goalkeepers, it isn’t easy being green

SeanJohnsonGreen (ISIPhotos.com)

Photos by ISIPhotos.com

By IVES GALARCEP

Wine and goalkeepers get better with age. It isn't hard to argue with the second part of that statement if you watch Major Leaue Soccer with any regularity. In a league that, for the first time in its history, has three goalkeepers 23 and younger starting regularly for their teams, finding youthful reminders of the importance of goalkeeping experience is never difficult.

Whether you had Sean Johnson delivering a lazy pass that turns into a goal like last Saturday against Columbus, or Bill Hamid looking nervous and unsure at times in last week's match-up against Philadelphia and fellow young netminder Zac MacMath, there were plenty of recent examples of just how tough it can be for young goalkeepers to avoid mistakes and avoid playing like the novices they are.

Does it mean that Johnson and Hamid don't represent a strong generation of goalkeepers making their way up the ranks? No, what it means is that growing pains are an unavoidable aspect of developing young goalkeeping talent.

This isn't something only MLS deals with. You can go to the English Premier League, where Manchester United's David DeGea (21) and Arsenal's Wojciech Szczesney (22) have both thrilled and frustrated fans as they have alternated between making special plays and frustrating mistakes.

Tim Howard knows all too well about the struggles of being a young goalkeeper trying to hone his craft while in the spotlight as a starter, and he sees the current generation of talented young netminders as special group, but one going through inevitable growing pains."

"When you're starting games regularly at that age nobody is ever going to have a smooth ride," Howard told SBI. "There is so much to learn about the position that you don't even realize at that age. When I think back I know there were things about positioning and hand placement that just came with experience.

"When you're young you are going to have those trials and tough times but getting games at that age is such a big thing."

BillHamidGreen (ISIPhotos.com)

"I look at Zac MacMath and Sean (Johnson) and Bill (Hamid) and I think the sky’s the limit for those guys,” Howard said. “What I will say is I think goalkeeping is so much more than talent. You need to save the ball. You need to have the tools to be able to save the ball. Yes, you have to be strong. You have to be powerful, be able to dive, be able to jump. All that stuff is important, but I don’t think you learn a lot about a goalkeeper until much later on.

“They need to keep getting games under their belt,” Howard said. “I think any game for a goalkeeper at that age is good. Play lots of games, make mistakes, make big saves."

At 22, Howard was entering his first full season as a professional starter. What will be remembered about his days in net for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars were his acrobatic saves and outrageous athleticism, but he too made mistakes and let inexperience and over-aggressiveness get the better of him.

Howard still played well enough to earn a transfer to Manchester United at the age of 24, but even then he was still learning the position and endured his share of trials and tribulations along with success during two seasons at Old Trafford.

What Howard didn't have to deal with during his formative years with the MetroStars was comparisons to other young goalkeepers in MLS. Back then, a young Nick Rimando was making his way up the ranks with the Miami Fusion and D.C. United, but he was not on the same radar screen as Howard, who was on the cusp of the U.S. national team. Howard stood alone as the future of the position.

The current class of young American netminders are faced with comparisons on a regular basis, and you can rest assured they all feel the pressure to outdo the other members of that class. When Hamid, Johnson and MacMath have squared off this season we have seen outstanding performances, but also some of the poorest showings for each of them. They might not admit it publicly, but they all feel some extra pressure when looking across the field at another young goalkeeper.

That competition puts even more pressure on Hamid, Johnson and MacMath to perform, because it is almost inevitable that in a given week when one of them has struggled, another one of them will have put on a great performance.

For Hamid and Johnson, the comparisons have become inevitable, but what was at one point a simmering rivalry has transformed into a friendship. One forged by their shared disappointment during the U.S. Men's Under-23 national team's failed bid to qualify for the Olympics.

"It's something we both went through and brought us together," Johnson said. "You're always going to have that competition between each other, but we also have respect for each other because we know we're both going through the same things."

What Johnson, Hamid and MacMath are enduring is the growing pains of a position that is not truly mastered until players are into their 30s. They are all eager to improve, but only experience and games played will sharpen their skills and eliminate the mistakes that seem to come all too frequently.

Remember that next time you watch one of them struggle through a game, or make a mistake that seems far too simple to make. The goalkeeper position is a tough one to learn on the job, but the current generation of talented young American netminders is doing just that. 

If Hamid, Johnson and MacMath can continue improving, and shake off the mistakes when they come, they could end up forming the best generation of American goalkeepers since the Brad Friedel-Kasey Keller-Tony Meola generation. But first, they most survive these formative years.

"Time will tell with those guys," Howard said of the young contingent of MLS goalkeepers."But I have a lot of faith in them as a goalkeeping generation. More so than any we’ve had in a long time."

ZacMacMath (ISIPhotos.com)

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36 Responses to Monday Morning Centerback: For young goalkeepers, it isn’t easy being green

  1. Patrick says:

    Just have to say how much I love the Monday morning center back. Through no real fault of his own, I sometimes think that that Ives’ voice and commentary get lost amongst the news on this site and his reporting for Fox soccer (both fantastic by the way). It’s nice to hear a commentary of sorts every once in a while, ike this and Jozy last week. I’m hoping it will happen more. I think that’s why the live QandAs are so popular, we want to know what Ives thinks.

  2. Dimidri says:

    +1. Nicely phrased ‘lost voice’.

  3. Will says:

    Good stuff Ives.

  4. Old School says:

    Well done, Ives.

    Loved this years ago – looking forward to it’s consistent return.

    In regards to the article: All appear to have national team aspirations. Hopefully that will drive a deep competition that pushes them farther and farther in their development, all the while being civil and friendly, as Johnson/Hamid have apparently become.

    I haven’t watched enough of McMath as I have Johnson and Hamid, but I hope to see him get some action with the Nats at some point to judge his ability at that level.

  5. Eric says:

    Just a question Ives, based on what I read here, I assume you rate Johnson and Hamid much higher than MacMath in terms of potential? I’m asking because you tended to mention Johnson and Hamid together much more often while MacMath almost felt roped into this article more because of his age and not neccesarily because you think his ability on the same level as the other two.

    Not a critique or anything, just something I noticed and I was wondering.

    (SBI-I think Hamid and Johnson are ahead of MacMath, but I also think MacMath is good enough to be included in the conversation and this group. Both Hamid and Johnson have already had national team looks so they’re a notch above right now, but MacMath has a bright future and might just wind up being the best of the bunch. It’s definitely too early to tell.)

  6. Rlw2020 says:

    +1 i like how this site is very factual and comprehensive for 90% of the time and then a weekly opinion piece. Most site seem to do a poor job of blending the two into every post.. Thank you Ives!

    As for the keepers; good to see those 3 comming along. The difference i always notice between a young keeper and an expierenced one is the ability to run the defenence. Look at Howard or Buffon, they comand the defence everytime the ball enters their third. In philly the defence was outstanding under Mondragon for that reason. Now with these 3 keepers their defences’ have been great at times but not at others. This is where they will need time to improve.

  7. elmatador says:

    GK it’s a tough position, I think the league is doing good in supporting Hamid, Johnson and McMath. I hope at least one of them can make a trasnfer like Howard did in his day. I had high hopes on Chris Seitz and Josh Lambo since I’m an FCD fan, although they’re both young I don’t think they have a future with the NATS or Abroad.

  8. Shane says:

    Howard said there were things about positioning and hand placement that he didnt appreciate at a young age, but this is not the problem we are seeing with these keepers. That is different than passing it straight to a guy in bright yellow. We are seeing mental mistakes. We are seeing basic breakdowns that shouldnt be happening at this level, regardless of age. I havent seen enough of McMath to judge but from what I’ve seen of Hamid and Johnson, neither will ever be a long term starter for the Nats. That position comes with so much longevity that I have to think there will always be someone better, either older or younger, to tend goal for the US.

  9. THomas says:

    Does Friedel not do many interviews? I always see quotes from Howard, but rarely see Friedel quoted in stories. I think his insight would be tremendous.

  10. Eric says:

    Thanks for the response. I’m in agreement that it’s far too early to tell on any of them. I’ve seen enough flashes out of all three at their current ages that all three of them could end up making the same world cup roster and I wouldn’t be shocked.

  11. elmatador says:

    also Ives, where do you see Cody Cropper fit in this big picture. Is this just about young MLS keepers? do you think playing in MLS is better than Southampton’s U-21 team in the new U-21 Premier League?

  12. Eric says:

    Disagree that these mistakes are enough to write them off as future national team starters. Johnson’s pass for example was a mental lapse. At that age, the ability to keep complete and total focus for an entire game is still uncommon. Go watch a college game and you’ll see similar stuff with very talented kids who haven’t fully learned to keep their focuse for a full 90 minutes. Not saying that it’s an excuse, but something to keep in mind.

  13. whoop-whoop says:

    Just guessing…. but the fact that Howard is w/ the Nats and frequently in the states makes him much more available to US media than Friedel is. It certainly can’t be an unwillingness to express an opinion.

  14. Ed says:

    They got a looong way to go before they can even sniff Guzan territory.

  15. T-moble says:

    Of course it’s better.

  16. Shane says:

    You made my point. I watch a great deal of college ball and there are plenty of keepers that can maintain the focus for a full ninety. They should be able to do that by 22 yrs of age. I think people see the athletic talent and are trying to will the mental part to happen with Hamid and Johnson. I know they will improve in that area with age, but I dont think it will be enough to ever make either the US’ top choice

    (SBI-Shane, are you really comparing the kind of focus it takes to play goalkeeper in college with the focus it takes to play goalkeeper in the pros?)

  17. 2tone says:

    All 3 have bright futures, but how bright is up to them individually. Lets not forget about Steve Clark who is considered one of the best if not the best GK in Norway’s top flight. Yes he is 25, but he is getting better and better, and could be off to greener pastures soon.

  18. Shane says:

    I would rather hear Howard’s opinion than Friedel’s, I have a lot more respect for his judgement. Friedel is a bit of a mess.

  19. biff says:

    That is probably true, and makes it even more puzzling why Klinsmann last autumn basically anointed Bill Hamid as Tim Howard’s successor. Probably Klinsmann’s second worst mistake behind his penchant for playing three defensive midfielders and not using friendlies earlier this year to test attacking midfielders. In any case, I think Klinsmann’s brief infatuation with Hamid came way too soon and probably was not good for Hamid’s development, but at least Klinsmann fairly quickly realized it was a mistake and backed off the kid to let him develop at his own pace.

  20. Ryan says:

    Keep in mind it’s college. Not saying college soccer is easy, but keeping concentration in a league like MLS is MUCH harder than a college match. These guys are young. They will make mistakes. Show me a keeper at the age of 21-23 that is flawless in the world and I will show you a Leprechaun. Neither of us will get to see what we want because they don’t exist. Be patient with the young guys.

    Imagine being 23 and instead of graduating college you are playing in front of 20,000…

  21. WK says:

    San Jose’s backup David Bingham is another that bears mentioning. He was in the mix for the Olympic team this summer right up to the end, and has shown some awesome shot-stopping (and goal-scoring) skills. I think the USMNT future is secure as ever with all of these prospects developing.

  22. Shane says:

    Not the sort of mistakes the head of the US MNT should be making imho, but Gulati has a man crush so this is what we get

  23. Nate Dollars says:

    ooh, let’s have an MMCB on JK’s worst mistake!

    my vote: not bringing in lichaj.

  24. tom traubert says:

    anyone else remember Kevin Hartman’s gaffe in the MLS Cup when he was with LA? I recall he scuffed a goal kick and it led to an easy goal, although LA still won. He’s a rock now. Howard was crucified for making a save in the CL and having the rebound fall at the foot of a Porto (?) player, who scored to knock ManU out. Friedel has said that he couldn’t catch a cold at Liverpool. US fans need to stop writing players off so quickly…it takes time.

  25. beachbum says:

    ‘we want to know what Ives thinks’

    +1 and what he knows too

  26. NATO says:

    within 2 years we need all 3 of them to be playing in Europe

  27. NATO says:

    Hamid, Johnson, MacMath, Meara and Cropper. Oh yeah we set for quality for the next decade.Just need them in Europe

  28. abc says:

    Yup, it’s really five guys. Although Meara could play for Ireland…

  29. Jake says:

    How did MacMath get lumped in with Johnson and Hamid? I like the article overall, but i’m surprised to see him grouped with them. I know he was on some youth national teams, but nothing recently puts him in their class.

  30. Helium-3 says:

    It’s the main reason why keepers need to work out their game in the lower leagues. Can’t be too casual about things when games are at stake. It’s not a pick up game and people’s livelihoods are at stake.

  31. Dave from Charlotte says:

    More please…great stuff!

    I’d love to read something that expands on one of your Tweets.

    For example: “Andy Iro signs w/third division side Stevenage (coached by former Rapids boss Gary Smith). Sounds about right.”

    I’ve heard, read, etc. that the top 1-3 teams in MLS are comparable to the bottom of the EPL. I’ve heard the middle tier are comparable on any given day to the middle of the table of the Championship, and that the bottom of MLS might struggle to stay up in the Championship.

    So if someone like Andy Iro signs with a 3rd Division team…since he apparently isn’t signing with MLS is that what you mean by, “sounds about right”.

    (SBI-My “Sounds about right” tweet was more saying that English 3rd Division is about the level Andy Iro should be playing because he’s pretty terrible.)

  32. James says:

    Well, no one is denying that he is a firm #3 behind those 2. But being the 3rd U23 GK and being constantly called up to youth teams, like those other two, merit the mentions.
    Not to mention the theme of the article being “<23 GKs who are now starting and who also had youth NT experience is at a ll time high” implies including MacMath too.

  33. Hunter says:

    Couple of reasons. For one, he’s a bit like Howard’s protege because he’s been training with him each MLS offseason since joining the Union. And for another, he’s (in my opinion) a bit more decisive and aggresive than Hamid or Johnson are on break aways. There aren’t many games of seen I’ve seen where he’s made a bad decision one-on-one.

    That said, he’s not as athletic as either Hamid or Johnson and I don’t know if he can command a defence since thats currently Valdes’s job in Philly, but the fact remains that he should probably be in the conversation, at the very least for the fact that he’s been learning under two top goalkeepers with Howard and Mondragon (past his prime, sure, but an expert on positioning and commanding defences)

  34. Mark says:

    Clearly you didn’t see Friedel, Keller or Meola play at the same age.

  35. Dave from Charlotte says:

    Ha! Okay…thanks for the response. :D

  36. AMPhibian says:

    +1 great article. i hope they listen and watch tim howard well. i think it’s important for young players to watch a lot of the greats, in person or on tv/film, while taking thorough notes.