The art and evolution of goalkeeping: What should we really be looking for?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The goalkeeper position has evolved; we all know that. The United States' best walk us through how and why.

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When goalkeepers err, muses United States men’s national team head coach Bruce Arena, “everyone knows it.” It's been so since the Freemasons' Tavern talks of 1863, and so it shall be until every aspect of the game is subject to video review. Even then, goalkeeper gaffes will stand out.

Every goal, or nearly so, has the keeper's fingerprints all over it; or rather, they don’t, which is why the ball's in the net. Just ask any random fan 18 rows up in the south-end stands. Or most of us “experts” watching from the press box.

“When I'm in the stadium, I feel like everybody's had some sort of goalkeeping experience ...,” deadpanned Luis Robles, the New York Red Bulls' iron-man netminder. “Goalkeepers get blamed for everything. If it's a 0-0 tie, it's our fault. It comes with the position.

“This is why a lot of goalkeepers are balding.”

We all pretend we know, and a few among us invariably do. We can watch a No. 6 or a No. 9 and get a good impression of what they're doing (or not doing), but the complexity of what's actually going on with goalkeepers -- all the minute details that add up to the diving save, the punch in goalmouth traffic, the boot into midfield to push the attack -- is, let's be honest, a bit beyond most of us.

“It's no longer 10 field players and a goalkeeper. It's, when the ball's at the goalkeeper's feet, 11 field players.”

- Luis Robles

So how should we assess goalkeepers' performances?

“I'm looking for a goalkeeper that, technically, doesn't have any holes, that can make all the saves, and that can cover the goal, both coming out for crosses and shot-stopping,” Matt Reis, the U.S. men's national team's goalkeeper coach, told FourFourTwo. “We're looking for someone who's a leader. We're looking for someone who is calm in situations and is organized and knows exactly what we're trying to do out there. We're looking for someone who's brave and has that ability to make that key save.

“[When you're talking about] the [Brad] Friedels, the [Kasey] Kellers, the [Tony] Meolas, Tim Howard when he's called upon, they've all made those big saves that we need that get us the three points.”

New skills required at the position

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

That's just a starting point. Goalkeeper, as much as any other position on the field, has evolved dramatically as the game has grown into the increasingly athletic, dynamic and frenetic display we're presented daily. What passed for expert goalkeeping a generation or two ago isn't nearly enough these days.

Today's netminders must be nimble with the ball at their feet, presenting defenders under pressure with a viable option, starting attacks with precise balls of varying length, and organizing a backline that's not a back four as much as it's a back five, goalkeeper included.

“It's no longer 10 field players and a goalkeeper. It's, when the ball's at the goalkeeper's feet, 11 field players,” Robles said. “All that's done is change my training tendencies, to really be involved as much as possible, to be able to play the ball out wide, in the middle, the long ball with my right foot, left foot. And this is vital for any young goalkeeper to understand, that the modern goalkeeper [has to be able to] play with the team.”

This step has been coming since FIFA established the back-pass rule 25 years ago, preventing goalkeepers from handling passes from teammates. The rules was extended to include throw-ins five years later. Keepers' footwork has had to progress since.

“I've always been a goalkeeper who enjoys playing on the field, who enjoys hopping into 5-v-5,” Orlando Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris said. “There's so many valuable things about just being well-rounded, and it's actually fun, too. I've played a ton on the field.”

'Constantly a sponge'

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Keepers have to be speedier in everything they do. They have less time to react to harder-hit balls that, thanks to advanced technology, swerve and dip every which way as speedy attackers race into the box to put away the rebound.

“The game is exceptionally quick,” said Graeme Abel, the U.S. women's national team's goalkeeper coach. “We do a lot of research with the women's team on reaction time, the time from [the ball] leaving the shooter's foot to getting to the goalkeeper. The ability of these players to hit a ball, hit it with pace, hit it with movement has grown. The ball's getting lighter. All these things change our position dramatically.

“It used to be where you would never train a goalkeeper to knock a ball away, you would never do sections where the goalkeeper uses his feet to make a save. It was kind of taboo. But now it's a vital piece of [the position], because you've got players -- on our side, Carli Lloyd, Christen Press -- who can hit a ball extremely hard, extremely accurate, from short range, long range, and you've got to have a variety of methods to get rid of that ball.”

The pace of the game has forced goalkeepers to do more with less time and thus less space. Abel says that sometimes that means goalkeepers won’t even have a chance to move their feet.

Becoming an informed goalkeeper, an educated goalkeeper, will push one further.

“I'm constantly a sponge. That is who I am,” Harris said. “I love to watch the game, and if I see something work for a male goalkeeper, a female goalkeeper, how can I incorporate it into my training? There's times I'll even watch ice hockey. How are ice hockey [goaltenders] kicking their legs out and making these quick reaction saves?”

The work is paying off.

“One of the greatest things I've mastered the last few years is 1-v-1 saves, making those big-time plays with my club team,” she said. “And really branching away from playing like a girl, as most people would say, [into] playing like a man. ... A lot of female coaches will say, 'Well, I don't want to show you men's clips; we're not men, we play different than men,' but I don't think so. I think we're just as good as the men. We have the potential to play just as fast as the men. We should be able to strike the ball just as hard as the men.”

She continued: “Everything I watch is male goalkeeping. And everyone who I train with, train against, when I do shooting, I'm out here with men. I think that's really important for who I am as a goalkeeper.”

NEXT: Is there a prototypical goalkeeper?