What does a goalkeeper coach do? For Minnesota's Rovde, it's all mental
In many ways, a goalkeeper is the most revered and most maligned player on any team.
When things go right, they’re the hero. The individual efforts of Tim Howard against Belgium at the 2014 World Cup are career-defining. When things go wrong for a team, however, the blame often falls on the man between the pipes.
It’s hard to truly understand their roles, and even more mysterious are the goalkeeper coaches who shape them behind the scenes. Goalkeeper coach is such a specialized position, often working closely with only a few players and almost always training on a different field than the rest of their team. What do they actually do?
Meet Marius Rovde. He held this position with the Vancouver Whitecaps from 2011-2016 before joining Minnesota United ahead of its inaugural MLS season. The three goalkeepers he’s worked closest with? Joe Cannon, David Ousted and Bobby Shuttleworth; all three veterans long before Rovde started working with them. All three made significant strides under Rovde.
Rovde’s approach focuses on the mental side of training. He believes that the best goalkeepers in the world all share one quality: poise. As every game unfolds outside of their control, a good shot-stopper has to keep his composure in the face of pressure.
“In big games, you feel a bit legless,” Rovde tells FourFourTwo. “What can a goalkeeper coach do, then, when you see he’s getting nervous, or when Bobby’s getting nervous? I can say something really stupid to take his mind off the game and make him laugh, or suddenly do something inappropriate and trick him. You know when you’re at the chiropractor to fix your neck? Sometimes they ask a question, and when you’re about to answer, they crack your neck? That’s what you basically do with a goalkeeper as well.”
This level-headed approach has brought the best football out of three established goalkeepers. Take Cannon as an example. He’d missed many months ahead of the 2012 season due to injury, but he was incredible that year. He anchored Vancouver as the Whitecaps set the MLS record for longest shutout streak to begin a season. For 427 minutes, Cannon was unbeatable. Rovde guided Cannon through that stretch.
“Joe Cannon had some unique stuff,” Rovde says. “He could stand on his head alone, could go and play four small-sided games and have a clean sheet. He’s cheeky, he’s brave. It’s like Nick Rimando now. He cheats a bit because he knows what he has to do to save. Sometimes it pays off; sometimes, you look like a fool. We got him going, but he needed 20 minutes in an ice bath from his ears on down after every game. His body was ruined, but we still got a lot out of him. He was limping on the pitch when the game started, he limped off when it was finished. He had ice bags everywhere when he left the field and dressing room.”
With Cannon clearly needing to take a mentorship role after the first ten games of 2013, Rovde scouted and brought in David Ousted. He immediately stepped in and has hardly missed a step since, making two MLS All-Star appearances and finishing runner-up in the 2015 Goalkeeper of the Year voting. Rovde refers to Ousted as “the next level,” and helped the Dane become one of the best in MLS by boosting his composure and positioning.
“Marius has been fantastic for me,” Ousted told Red Nation back in 2014. “He knows me very well. He knows when to push me and when to back me up. He's the first one to compliment me, but he's also the first one to criticize me and that keeps me on my toes and keeps me getting better. He has a plan for me and which sides of the game he wants to develop with me, and that's helped me a lot already."
Now, Rovde is shaping another rising goalkeeper in Minnesota. Shuttleworth was thrust into action two games into the season after then starter John Alvbåge nearly broke his leg in a nasty collision.
“I was excited by the trade,” Shuttleworth told FourFourTwo. “I was at a point in my career where I needed to move on. The writing was on the wall for me there. I’d met (Rovde) a couple of times, but nothing more than small chit-chat. As soon as I came in here, Marius gave me a lot of support. He wasn’t heaping pressure on anyone, and told us it would improve.”
The Loons have improved after allowing 11 goals in their first two games and 18 in their first four, even if they remain at the bottom of the Western Conference. Shuttleworth has shown an increased mental awareness, and he’s having his best year since leading New England to the 2014 MLS Cup final. Rovde’s composed approach has played a role in that.
Shuttleworth was responsible for conceding penalty kicks in two consecutive games in June. Instead of berating his goalkeeper, Rovde shrugged it off, using the moments as teaching points.
“It’s completely different from when I was in New England,” Shuttleworth says. “Every goalkeeper coach has different styles. Marius’ training is different. A lot of what I had in New England was really difficult training and pressure training, very technical. It’s stuff that kept me sharp when I was younger, because I could recover quicker. We don’t need to go a million miles an hour and be under pressure the whole time. This is probably the best I’ve felt body-wise in a long time.”