Why Does The USA Consistently Produce Good Goalkeepers, But Not Field Players

Why Does The USA Consistently Produce Good Goalkeepers, But Not Field Players

This generation of the US Men’s soccer team has been touted as the best ever by many. The main reason why fans and experts alike want to talk about this generation as the best ever is because of the simple fact that more American players are playing on top European teams than ever before. Even 10 years ago seeing an American player on a top flight team seemed impossible. Now, the likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston Mckinney, Tyler Adams, and others make it seem like it’s a matter of time before we truly see an American in the top ten best players in the world. When we look at the list of American goalkeepers that have played abroad though, many people would be surprised that American goalkeepers have had way better careers than any American field player.

How can you stack up the entire career of someone like Tim Howard and a player like Landon Donovan, or even Christian Pulisic for that matter and think that the field players’ careers have anything on Timmy’s? The man was the best player on an Everton squad that was usually middle of the pack in the Premier League. It’s not just Tim Howard who is the outlier. Brad Friedel played for what seems like forever and a day in England. Kacey Keller’s career abroad includes teams in the top flight leagues of Spain, Turkey, and England. These days Zack Steffen maybe couldn’t break into the Man City first team and Matt Turner is looking at some of the same issues at Arsenal. Still, you’re talking about two American goalkeepers that were or are on the doorstep of starring for a top flight club. Why is that? 

What The Zack Steffen World Cup Snub Should Teach Young Goalkeepers

American Goalkeepers Are Very Adaptable To The British Game

Most of the American goalkeepers that have been able to build a successful career in Europe have done so in England. That includes the Premier League for the top keepers like Friedel, and Howard. Even Friedel, Keller, Steffen and others have had to spend time in the lower leagues. For the most part though it’s the British game that suits Americans the best. There are at least a few reasons for that. The prototypical American goalkeeper is very much in the image of the prototype British keeper. We are talking about tall physical goalkeepers that don’t have a problem coming out to cut crosses. It’s really weird that this part of the game isn’t as noteworthy these days, but the Brits still want the tall units between the sticks. 

In that same train of thought the British game usually hides some of the deficiencies that American goalkeepers have traditionally had. Particularly when it comes to being efficient on their feet. I want to make a clarification here. I’m not saying that all American goalkeepers are bad with the ball at their feet. That’s the stereotype just like the height element. Basically I just gave a long winded answer to say that American goalkeepers are tall, and lengthy. That’s what most of the British clubs have looked for in goalkeepers over the years. Someone like Keylor Navas making it in the Premier League at 6 foot 1 for example, is a total anomaly! The height issue is why we don’t typically see many Latino goalkeepers in England. Although Dibu Martinez and the Brazilian duo are now breaking that stereotype.   

Tim Howard showing his jumping abilities

There’s No Direct Correlation Like That With Field Players

Even though what I just talked about are all stereotypes we would be naive to think that teams don’t usually stick to those stereotypes when picking players. The same thing that plays in favor of American goalkeepers typically plays against American field players. We can’t really say that there’s a prototypical build for the American field player. In fact, arguably the two most talented American soccer field players of all time Landon Donovan and Christian Pulisic are both considerably shorter than the average American male. What happens a lot of times is that teams are not necessarily looking for talent. Of course, there are cases like that of Messi and other players where you hear that they blew away every single scout they came across. Those are the exceptions though not the rule. 

For the most part scouts are looking for a prototype that they then feel they can mold into what they want for their teams. Certain nationalities already have constructed their soccer player prototype. For example, Brazilian players are known for being speedy and magic on the ball. If you’re a team looking for a talented player you’re more likely to go with a Brazilian than an American player. Even if the American player is arguably more talented, American field players have not established their reputation like players from other parts of the world have. Is thinking that players from a certain country are better than others just because of where they grew up a good idea? Generalizations are never a good idea in any business. In these cases though scouts place a higher value on the competition in Brazilian or Argentine youth leagues more than in MLS.       

Kasey Keller coming to cut a cross

The Bridge For American Goalkeepers Has Essentially Been Built

This idea falls right in line with what I was just referencing. In a sense the book on the prototypical American field player has yet to be written. Scouts don’t look at an American player and necessarily attach certain attributes to him right off the bat. When it comes to American goalkeepers there’s an argument to be made that they have developed that reputation that you need with scouts to kind of blindly give you an edge over players from other parts of the world. Now, there’s an argument to be made that in the grand scheme of things it’s still a small number of American goalkeepers that have made it big in Europe.

Still, most of the guys that have made the jump across the pond have had decent lengthy careers. Again maybe they haven’t been able to put themselves in the conversation as the top goalkeeper in the world. Although I would argue that Tim Howard had a run at the end of those Everton when he grew the beard where he was in a list of at least the top 20 best goalkeepers in the world. Plus, he’d been a consistent starter for many years up to that point. 

Plus, goalkeeper is the position where you don’t have to be on the best team to be the best goalkeeper. I think we get that mixed up a lot of times. That’s how you end with Victor Valdes in top goalkeeper conversations. He was the goalkeeper for arguably the best team of all time, but as a player he was nowhere near a top goalkeeper even at his peak!    

Matt Turner Goalkeeper USA

You Can Get American Goalkeepers For Cheap

There are a couple of reasons why we’ve seen American players make the jump abroad. It would be unfair to paint everyone with the same broad brush. When you look at Matt Turner’s journey or even Tim Howard’s back in the day you realize that there’s not necessarily a ton of demand for American goalkeepers. This allows big clubs to sign them for cheap deals. I think that has more to do with the fact that the position isn’t valued in the US. I’m going to get into that in a bit though. You can get American goalkeepers for cheap because there are not a lot of clubs going to MLS looking for goalkeepers. In fact, as a whole, goalkeepers in the MLS are subpar in quality. 

Yet, this connection that has been built through the years particularly with British clubs has allowed virtually any American who has some qualities to make the jump. Turner is the most recent case of a player who went from the MLS to the bench at an English giant. Steffen had a bit of a similar journey. The cheap value and the lack of suitors actually helps American goalkeepers make this jump. Like I said, that prototype that has been built around American goalkeepers hasn’t applied to field players. If you think about it, it’s unfortunate. Other than Ricardo Peppi who inexplicably commanded about a 15 million dollar transfer fee, American players, particularly young ones, are not that expensive. You have to sign them though before you get that second MLS contract.     

Could American Goalkeepers Triumph Outside of England?

The short answer is yes. The next question would be why don’t they? It probably comes down to what I’ve been talking about with building these connections between clubs. Essentially clubs and even agents can feed off the stereotypes that they themselves create for players from different countries. When it comes to American goalkeepers the British like the fact that in general the American school of Goalkeeping has a lot of elements from the British. Simply put, American goalkeepers tend to train or develop their methodology around what’s been used in England for years. It’s even a cultural thing. It’s easier to study methods and techniques with people who speak your own language.

There’s an argument to be made that American goalkeepers are falling victim to the same prejudice that British keepers have had in other parts of the world. The general idea is that Americans and British goalkeepers are tall rigid players that are super stiff on their feet. Zack Steffen hasn’t helped the stereotype. Tim Howard for example was an overly athletic shot stopper, but not Neuer on the ball. I still think that we can see Americans succeed in other leagues. Kasey Keller for example proved that. At the same time what benefits them in England hurts them in other parts of the world. As I said these are stereotypes built by scouts, clubs and agents. They can play in your favor or against you sometimes.     

Why There Isn’t As Much Recognition For American Goalkeepers In The USA?

I make the argument that the position is not valued in MLS at all. There are a lot of guys that I think are very subpar pros that have had multi year careers. That goes back to the fact that they’ve been there because most teams don’t want to waste part of the salary cap on a goalkeeper. Most of the goalkeepers that play for MLS teams earn salaries that are within the salary cap. It doesn’t make sense to make a goalkeeper your franchise player. To most teams it doesn’t at least. What you get a lot of the time is a haven for subpar foreign goalkeepers that are blocking American prospects. That’s why the USMNT carried Nick Rimando to the training camps until such an old age. Brad Guzan was on the same path until very recently.  

At  the same time the fact that goalkeepers are not valued in the US pushes Americans outward. The thought process is pretty simple. I could go play abroad even if I’m looking at a chance in division 2 or whatever it may be. The salary gap between what you stand to make in MLS isn’t massive. The upside that you potentially have from playing in Europe far outweighs what you can do for your career if you stay in MLS. All that factors into why we’ve seen for 20 years at least 2 or 3 American goalkeepers playing in Europe. 

If you want to check out more information on this topic check out my Tim Howard article. I go into the careers of Kasey Keller, and Brad Friedel in that article as well. To me, it was fascinating how they made a career for themselves in Europe. They are certainly the reason this bridge between European clubs and American goalkeepers exists today!