Being honest, there isn't much about U.S. soccer that people in England envy, but we do wish we had a similar glut of goalkeeping talent. Over the last 10-15 years the U.S. has produced an extraordinary number of high-class goalkeepers, so many, in fact, that it's begun to spoil Sylvester Stallone's performance in Escape to Victory (because there, of course, half the joke was that he was an American who played football and had to play in goal so he could use his hands).
The secret of the boom, though, seems less likely to lie in DVD sales of the John Huston prisoner-of-war camp classic and, at least if his own version of events is to be believed, more to do with the arrival in the U.S. in 1993 of Milutin Soskic. He was invited over by the then national coach Bora Milutinovic, with whom he'd played at Partizan Belgrade in the sixties. "There were good goalkeepers there before I got there," he said. "I don't want to exaggerate my role, but I think they didn't have enough good continuity work. They were self-taught, and they didn't have good coaches who were former goalkeepers."
Soskic himself had an impressive pedigree. These days he would be considered short for a keeper, but he had a reputation, as he put it as "a master of crosses" and had been a key figure in Partizan's run to the European Cup final in 1966. Now 73, he remains a sparky and self-assertive, someone who complains about being kicked all over his penalty area by German forwards while at the same time missing those matches dreadfully. Perhaps it was coincidence, but when I met him in a Belgrade hotel earlier this year, he was wearing a jumper in the same powder blue as the shirts he wore as a goalkeeper.
On arriving in the U.S. in 1993, Soskic found talent almost immediately. "When I got there, in the club where I was working there was a kid who played basketball, and I saw from his name he had German ancestry, and I said, almost as a joke, that I would make a goalkeeper out of him." That player was Brad Friedel. In the 12 years Soskic spent working for the U.S. Soccer Federation, he also had significant impacts over the careers of Jurgen Sommer, Marcus Hahnemann, Kasey Keller and Tim Howard. "I put the emphasis on the things I'd learned to become a good goalkeeper," Soskic said. "They accepted it. There were some little problems in terms of the way of training, but there was no big resentment. In some cases there were asking, 'What do I need to do this for? What do I need to do that for?' but most of the time they accepted it."
Occasionally that meant eccentric drills. He would teach them positioning by making them lie down with their back to the ball to show which position best covered the goal. On one occasion Soskic had a load of sand delivered to the training ground and made his goalkeepers train on that so that when they returned to the grass their spring was much greater. "They felt like they were flying," he said.
Soskic's priority, though, was positioning. "I think the goalkeepers from the United States, but also from England and Germany put more emphasis on physique, on stature, but for me it was not too difficult to change the method of work. I persuaded them that a goalkeeper must not only be a goalkeeper -- he can even act outside the penalty area. The most difficult thing for me was to teach them how to behave in the goal, to come out off their line and make the goal smaller. It was not difficult for me to teach such things to children of eight, 10 or 15 years old, but for an older goalkeeper, if he got used to falling back, then it's not so easy to change him and persuade him it's better to go forward, that you have to go toward the ball and cut off the angle. It was difficult for me to persuade them that by doing that you can make a goal that is eight yards across seem only five yards across. I had to teach them to get the positioning right.
"I made them learn to play like a sweeper, so that they could intercept sometimes the ball, to watch, to make the position already when the attacking player has the ball, to watch the positions of all the players and at times to try to get into the position of the opponent before he receives the pass. In 80 percent of the cases, he will guess right, and then there is no shot to save. Always at the end I would say that the ball is of feminine gender. The ball is a she not a he, and so you have to stand tall and grab it. If you don't do that, but you run after her, you will never catch her."
Soskic wasn't always successful, and he seems not to have rated Tony Meola, who was Milutinovic's first choice for the 1994 World Cup. "He was already old and was always standing on his heels," he said. "When there was a shot he was always on the back foot, but it's much better to go forward. If you've been taught one way when you're young it's very difficult to change."
It is Howard to whom Soskic seems to have the closest connection. "Manchester United asked me to write for them my opinion of Tim Howard," he said. "When he joined Manchester United [in 2003], he went from the U.S. national team directly to London and he was 15 minutes crying on my shoulder, because he all of a sudden was not only recognized as a very good goalkeeper but also became a very rich man. Every time I see him he hugs me and asks if I need anything. But my biggest reward is the pride I have in my goalkeepers.
"When he went to United I told him, because I knew that U.S. goalkeepers liked all the time to catch the ball, that the number one thing is to only try to catch balls you are 100 percent sure you can hold. Everything else, juts punch it into the corner. And what happens? He made some phenomenal saves in the first half of the season, he was brilliant, then they played Porto [in the Champions League quarterfinal] and he made a mistake. He knocked the ball down trying to catch a shot and Costinha scored." That was the goal that sent Jose Mourinho sliding down the touchline on his knees as Porto went through on the away goals rule.
Howard's mistake, Soiskic insists, was to ignore his one golden rule for everybody he coached. For all his idiosyncratic methods and colorful phrasing, and his obsession with positioning, for Soskic the most important thing is decision-making, about knowing the limits of what is possible. "A good goalkeeper," he said "is a goalkeeper who saves what can be saved."