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

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
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Experience matters

The technical detail that goes into all of this, and everything else the keeper does, is extraordinary, ranging from handling the ball -- and especially dealing with balls sent into the box -- to the ability to snuff out 1-v-1 chances, movement and angles, tactical positioning, posture in varied circumstances, and, biggest of all, the ability to determine the correct course of action, which tools to utilize, in a blip of a second.

“[The ability to make decisions is imperative] for sure, at our level,” Abel said. “If you look at the younger, younger, younger levels, decision-making is less. It comes later. But once you get up to the international level, are they able to process five or six different things at once? Are they able to to process them within split seconds and then make the right decision?”

“We always used to talk that goalkeepers going into their mid-30s would be when they'd hit their peak. But now we're able to speed that process up through advances in analysis."

- Graeme Abel

It's why goalkeepers hit their prime in their late 20s or early 30s. Decision-making, perhaps the most vital of all the skills, requires experience. The more experience, the better the decision.

“There's a lot of things that you can't train,” said Chicago Red Stars and U.S. women’s national team goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. “I mean, you can work on technique, you can work on things like that, but the decision-making is what you can't train, and that's where games play a huge role.”

And to get there, as antithetical as it might sound, a goalkeeper needs to make mistakes. And he needs to make them in games. Getting those minutes is essential.

“You have a longer leash when you're younger in making mistakes,” Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. “You're supposed to make mistakes. That's how you learn, and that's how I learned.”

It requires a focus and a fortitude that separates those who can do the job from those who can't.

“You have to have a guy who's mentally able to let things go quickly and can recover from their mistakes,” said Reis, who played 16 years in MLS, for the LA Galaxy and New England Revolution, and served the last three seasons under Arena as the Galaxy's goalkeeper coach. “They have to be mentally strong in order to make mistakes and learn from mistakes. And that's why the older you get and the more games you've played and more practices that you've seen, the more mistakes you've made, and therefore you kind of can have a better judgment and know what to do and what not to do.”

Keepers are adjusting as the game's evolution proceeds, and that's leading them into their primes at earlier ages.

“We always used to talk that goalkeepers going into their mid-30s would be when they'd hit their peak,” Abel said. “But now we're able to speed that process up through advances in analysis and things like that, and we can get the goalkeeper access to more things, to help speed decision-making up, things like that. And the ability to speed them up physically in terms of their development, I think it's the same. I think you're looking late 20s, early 30s [for goalkeepers to head into their prime years], but look at a David de Gea, where he's at the back end of his mid-20s but he's world class.”

Abel said his work with U.S. women's strength and conditioning coach Dawn Scott -- with “different types of testing with our goalkeepers, to look at that athletic point they've got” and position-specific programs -- have been important. And the changing landscape demands goalkeepers to push further.

Is there an ideal goalkeeper?

Is there a prototypical goalkeeper, a perfect specimen -- Friedel crossed with Keller and a dash of Howard's DNA, perhaps -- that every club and every coach covets? Not at all.

“When I grew up, in the U.K., it seemed like a very, very regimented style,” said Abel, who came up through Everton's youth system and first came to the U.S. in 1999 to play college soccer. “You did this, you did this, you did this.”

Then new philosophies, from Latin America and Continental Europe, started creeping in, and Peter Schmeichel's approach, greatly influenced by his experience in team handball, revolutionized the position 25 years ago. Now there's “so many different technical sort of philosophies out there,” Abel notes. “I think that's the beauty of the position. There's great stylistic variety.”

There are aggressive goalkeepers and conservative goalkeepers. Saves can be made beautifully with the hands or just as effectively with the face. The best of these types of players? Whichever works.

Tactics play a role in determining which kind of goalkeeper to use. Naeher and Harris are the primary candidates to succeed Hope Solo as the U.S. women's No. 1, but they could, perhaps, work best in tandem.

Naeher is athletic and a superb distributor. Harris is a leader and a shot-stopper.

“Do we want to hold a high line? Well, if we do that, we've got to make sure we have a goalkeeper that is comfortable playing behind our backline at any depth,” U.S. women's head coach Jill Ellis said. “Ash is very much an organizer, likes to set the table in front of her and demands of her backline. Alyssa has good vision and sees things, sees opportunities. Ashlyn is a bit more vocal, for sure, but they both have the trust of their teammates, and that, for me, is very important.”

It's not always whether one goalkeeper is superior.

“It's personal preference, 100 percent,” Harris said. “And right now we're trying different systems. Lately we've been playing in a three-back. With a three-back, you've got to have a sweeper-keeper, a keeper that's willing to come out and clean a mess up, that's really good with their feet. It's different than playing in a four-back, where you can stay home. ... Alyssa and I are two completely different goalkeepers. Depending on what system we're playing and what team we're playing, I guarantee you it might change [who is in the starting XI].”

Every coach, Harris says, has “a different idea of what they think a great goalkeeper is,” but there's general agreement that the ultimate standard is consistency.

“For me, it's consistency and decision-making ...,” Abel said. “We can go into all the technical and tactical pieces that go into it, but there's different ways [to do the job],” Abel said. “If they're consistent in terms of what they do, and they do it with quality, then that's a big piece of the assessment piece for me.”

It's about the full “body of work,” rather than isolated moments or games, Robles noted.

“You're looking for the type of guy that keeps his team in the game ...,” he said. “You want to be a guy that your teammates can count on, and in the toughest moments, when everything breaks down, you're able to keep your team in the game.

“If I'm able to do that more often than not, I feel like I'm going to have a job.”

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Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.