The gulf in quality between foreign and domestic U.S. goalkeepers? Not so great. Which is why we haven't yet seen a goalkeeper bequeathed with a Designated Player (DP) contract in MLS.
Still would it be such a stretch for an MLS club to break the unwritten rule that says big money must be spent in search of goals rather than preventing them?
Of the 24 DPs signed to date by teams, from the flops like Denilson and Mista to the profitable likes of Juan Pablo Angel, all were midfielders or forwards. Rafa Marquez, who always split his time for club and country between center back and deep-lying midfielder, represents the most rearward leaning DP choice yet.
It seems a bit naive, really. In the big picture, the chase for wins and titles, wouldn't a world-class goalkeeper be equally worth the cash? (Or even a pricey, rock-solid center back for that matter?)
It would have to be the right goalkeeper, of course -- and there is picture perfect DP fit out there right now in Brad Friedel. Set to turn 40 in May, Friedel has been told by Aston Villa that he won't fit with the youthful rebuild around Villa Park. But that's just a strategic choice, not a tip to waning form. A hiccup here and there aside, the former U.S. international has been as heroic as ever, still among the top Premier League 'keepers.
So is anyone in MLS paying attention? Is there a contrarian thinker in the lot, someone willing to boldly buck convention and sign a man who would immediately represent the gold standard for MLS shot stoppers?
Marcus Hahnemann is another candidate, although he's not quite the commodity that Friedel represents. Still, Hahnemann is tad younger at 38. And since he hasn't played for Wolves since November, it might not even take a full DP dip to lure Hahnemann.
Houston Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear says America produces good goalkeepers, so there's seldom been a need to rummage the foreign market. Plus, there's almost always a ticket sales element to these choices in MLS. "And the way to excite fans is by producing goals, either a player producing one on his own or assisting with one," the Dynamo coach said over the weekend.
Then again, he figures a top goalkeeper can be worth anywhere from 6-12 points a season, stealing points here and there when the team isn't at tiptop best.
Former U.S. international Kasey Keller came closest to reaching DP designation when he signed with Seattle in 2009 for a guaranteed $300,000. It is possible that if Keller's contract were negotiated today, when clubs can employ three DPs rather than the previous two, prevailing conditions may have nudged him into the DP zone. Wouldn't he be worth it? Hasn't he done far more than quite a few of the DP pretenders to have come and gone in MLS already? (We're looking at you Freddie Ljungberg.)
Looking at what most teams have in the net going into 2011, Friedel and perhaps Hahnemann would be an upgrade for all but maybe three MLS clubs. Either would represent a significant upgrade for about half the MLS field.
Look at it purely by the numbers. Houston, Philadelphia and New England all gave up at least 49 goals last year, well above the concession rate for the eight playoff teams. Not all of back third bumbling could be blamed on faulty goalkeeping, of course, as defensive issues were endemic in 2010 at all three clubs. And injuries, especially at New England, affected the choices in goal, too. Still the point is clear: better goalkeeping matters.
Or look at what FC Dallas accomplished last year with a motivated Kevin Hartman between the sticks.
Dallas was leaking soft goals when Hartman took over for Dario Sala. In the end FCD was 10-1-8 in Hartman's starts, an average of 2 points a game. Over a 30-game season that's 60 points, generally enough to ensure home field advantage through the playoffs. The side was 2-3-6 in Sala's start, an average of 1.1 points per game. Extrapolated over 30 matches (33 points) that's not enough to even sniff a playoff spot.
Yes, other things were working for Dallas, including an MVP season from David Ferreira. But in many ways the difference was one or two game-changing saves per outing from Hartman -- the type of saves a top-flight back stopper routinely delivers.
Go one season back: D.C. United, Toronto, Colorado and Dallas all missed the playoffs in 2009 by two points or fewer. A blue-chip player in goal surely could have provided any of those clubs with one additional win at very least.
Top quality goalkeepers do more than stop shots, of course. A goalkeeper is in position to lead in ways that forwards can't, which is all the more reason for clubs to consider opening their wallets for the right set of hands. Consider everything Keller has meant at Qwest Field beyond the big saves.
"One thing, these guys are going to be listened to," Kinnear said. "They have a tremendous amount of experience. If you ever sit and talk to Kasey Keller or to Brad [Friedel], their ideas about the game are really very good."
Hartman says he sees both sides of the "GK as DP" debate. On one hand, he would love for MLS goalkeepers to earn every possible penny. On the other hand, he can see the game from management's perspective, too. He understands how celebrity strikers help make money through jersey sales and such. And he says it might be easier for GMs or coaches to defend the choice of highly paid, underperforming attackers; the service isn't good enough for a striker, for instance. There's little hiding a pricey goalkeeper who isn't passing muster, so the decision may be up for additional scrutiny.
All that said, Hartman says the right team could find real value in Friedel or Hahnemann. "To bring those guys back, and pay them accordingly, from my perspective, I have always appreciated what goalkeepers do. I have always felt goalkeepers can make the difference between wins and losses."