Out of their hands? Consistency for goalkeepers a blend of skill, luck and some gamesmanship
When Luis Robles steps into the net at Avaya Stadium against the San Jose Earthquakes Wednesday night, the New York Red Bulls goalkeeper will be 90 minutes away from tying an MLS ironman goalkeeping record.
Barring injury or a red card, Robles will pull even with former goalkeeper Kevin Hartman. While backstopping the Kansas City Wizards in 2009, Hartman started and finished 112 successive matches.
Robles is more concerned about the Supporters Shield champions overcoming their 1-4 start than making history. The record probably is a bigger deal for his father, who watched the New York Yankees train while growing up in Puerto Rico.
"One of his favorite players is Lou Gehrig, the original iron man," Robles said of Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive games streak. "To have sort of parallel for him is pretty cool."
The streak is a testament to the keepers' ability to remain at the top of his game and to being consistent, a trait the Red Bulls have recently established. Coaches prefer reliable goalies, not ones who run hot and cold nor those who choke in crunch time, but ones who will keep their teams in the game when the opposition lays siege to the goal.
Robles and, previously, Hartman, have not played so many games in a row by accident.
Hartman won two U.S. Open Cups, two MLS Cups and was the 1999 MLS goalkeeper of the year. Robles has two Supporters Shields under his belt and was the league's top goalkeeper last season.
Hartman played an MLS-record 416 games during his 17-year career.
"I really relish the longevity records," Hartman told FourFourTwo. "There is something to be said for consistency. To be a one-hit wonder is great, but to be able to do it for seasons on end, that's something I have a massive amount of respect for."
If a goalkeeper wants a long run, he must remain in top form, probably perform for a winning side (losing teams not surprisingly change net-minders), steer clear of suspensions and stay healthy.
Part of my longevity was trying to limit the opportunities for the other player. I don't know if that's ruthless or what."
"There are certain times when you're not playing 100 percent," said Hartman, now the IMG Academy technical director and director of goalkeepers. "You feel confident in yourself that you can play 85 percent and maybe better than the guy behind you because you're on a roll. Part of my longevity was trying to limit the opportunities for the other player. I don't know if that's ruthless or what."
Hartman actually broke the record twice, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He surpassed Scott Garlick (83 games) with the LA Galaxy in 2005, extending the streak to 93 matches. Hartman’s 112-game run ended with a trade to FC Dallas in 2010.
While it didn't happen in the streak, one incident epitomized his desire to play. When Dallas keeper Dario Sala was injured in 2010, Hartman was called on despite having two broken fingers. He taped them up and played.
"It's a calculated risk,” he said. “It's one of those things where you don't want to under-perform. But just knowing how difficult it is and how long you have to wait just for an opportunity and then to not be one 100 percent physically prepared, you do your best with what you can."
Then there's just plain luck, like avoiding major injuries.
"It's very rare at that you wake up and everything feels great, whether it's a bum ankle or in my situation dislocated and sprained fingers," Robles said. "I've been very fortunate that I've never had major injuries. Whether that's God's grace or good fortune I'm going to take it for what it is."
The down side of the ironman's streak meant not many international opportunities in-season, before FIFA set mandatory playing dates. Hartman performed during the golden age of Americans goalkeepers -- Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, Tony Meola and Tim Howard -- so it was difficult to accrue more than five international caps.
Sometimes it comes down to things that are beyond your control."
"Sometimes it comes down to things that are beyond your control," he said.
All streaks must come to an end. In 2005, LA coach Steve Sampson told Hartman that he was going to use back-up Steve Cronin.
"I remember how torn I was," he said. "It's great to have those types of records, but you have the responsibility for the next generation. Stepping away and giving opportunities to younger goalkeepers is extremely satisfying."
Now someone else is about to make a streak history. That's fine with Hartman, who was Robles' teammate in 2013 when he was asked for advice.
"It's always nice to know the person who is breaking your record and have had some little input into his development," Hartman said of Robles. "I am excited that he continues to keep games and taking care of his family. It couldn't happen to a better guy. I'm a massive fan of his. It's one of those things that I happily relinquish to him and look forward him to making it as big as he possibly can in his pursuit for a championship."