Dissecting the USL Goalkeeper of the Year award

We look at how goalkeepers are evaluated and look into the top award for goalkeepers in the USL.

The “best goalkeeper in the world” debate is ongoing and will probably never be agreed upon.  The same can be said when it comes to soccer awards season.  Every year, the top goalkeeper in almost every league worldwide is crowned with the Goalkeeper of the Year award.  But how is that award decided?  It’s a question many fans ask and one that is debated on various social media platforms.  Let’s take a look at how the United Soccer League season unfolded and who has put their name in the hat for the year-end award.

The All-Important Save

You can only save what is in front of you. A goalkeeping phrase as old as Faryd Mondragon (google him). Let’s amend that a bit; you can only save what is shot on target. Most leagues in the world keep track of the number of saves each goalkeeper makes. What exactly does it mean though? There are two goalkeepers who broke the century mark for saves in the USL this season. Fabian Cerda amassed an astounding 125 saves while backstopping the Tulsa Roughnecks. Josh Cohen wasn’t too shabby himself, denying 117 shots throughout the season for the Sacramento Republic. Those numbers look even more impressive when you realize the next closest goalkeeper had 95 saves on the season.

Goalkeeping Statistics
USL goalkeeping table for saves courtesy of USLSoccer.com

However impressive those numbers are, simply looking at the number of saves alone can be somewhat misleading when comparing goalkeepers. It is also necessary to focus on a goalkeeper’s save percentage when comparing performances. While not foolproof, save percentage gives you an idea of how often goalkeepers are making saves when facing action. For example, Cerda faced 189 shots on target saving 125 of them. This amounts to a respectable 66.1% save percentage. In comparison, Cohen saved 117 of the 149 shots he faced on target giving him an outstanding 78.5% save percentage. While similar in overall saves, the true distinguishing factor was how often they kept the ball out of the net. Did Cerda face more quality shots on target? Did Cohen stand on his head more often? Those are impossible questions to answer when only looking at statistics.

 

Is save percentage the ultimate determining factor for goalkeeper performance? No, and let me explain why. Like most statistics that are widely tracked, save percentage doesn’t consider the quality of the shot on target. An effort flying into the top corner has a greater degree of difficulty than a slow rolling shot right at you, but both are weighted equally when determining a goalkeeper’s save percentage. I recently discussed this topic with NC State goalkeeper coach Justin Bryant on The Last Line: Soccer Podcast. He gave a more in-depth opinion on the use of statistics to judge a goalkeeper. Regardless of the goalkeeper, it’s hard to comprehensively judge performance based solely on statistics.

Racing for the Golden Glove

The Golden Glove award is given in almost every league around the world. The award is often confused with the Goalkeeper of the Year award, but the two are different. You can win the Golden Glove award without winning Goalkeeper of the Year and vice-versa. The Golden Glove award is based solely on a goalkeeper’s goals-against average.

To qualify for this prestigious award, a goalkeeper must play a certain percentage of their team’s total minutes. In the United Soccer League, this percentage is exactly 50%. It is often a topic of debate around awards season given that goalkeepers often widely vary in minutes played. The last three USL seasons have seen the Golden Glove winner play an average of 70% of their team’s minutes. This may be due to injury or simply a coach’s decision. No matter how the award is won, the goalkeeper’s contribution to their team is hard to question.

The 2018 race for the USL Golden Glove was an intriguing one that went down to the last weekend. Pittsburgh Riverhounds’ goalkeeper Dan Lynd spent much of the season backstopping one of the stingiest defenses in the league. Lynd played 73% of the minutes in goal for his team amassing a .81 GAA. His consistently stellar play led to him being a frontrunner in the Golden Glove race for much of the season. Ultimately, he was beaten out by FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Evan Newton. The veteran goalkeeper played in 59% of Cincinnati’s total minutes, posting an impressive .80 GAA. Did Newton play as many minutes as other goalkeepers? No, but was he the most successful at keeping opponents off the board when he was on the field? Without a doubt, the numbers prove it.

Doughnuts for everyone

As a goalkeeper, shutouts are the objective every time we step on the field. To some extent, it’s what we are measured by. It makes sense leagues would use this statistic to measure the validity of a goalkeeper’s claim for the yearly award. But to what extent does this metric hold water? Some would argue shutouts are more of a team statistic than individual and therefore shouldn’t hold as much weight. Whichever way you view it, a goalkeeper will always be judged on how many times they kept the opposition scoreless.

Goalkeeping Statistics
USL goalkeeping table for shutouts courtesy of USLSoccer.com

The 2018 USL season saw multiple records broken, including the single-season record for shutouts. Three seasons after the record was set, two different goalkeepers went above and beyond to set new standards. Matt Pickens led a stingy backline in Nashville; posting 14 clean sheets in 31 games played. Not to be outdone, Ottawa Fury’s Maxime Crepeau led all goalkeepers with 15 shutouts in 31 starts this season. Both goalkeepers had stellar seasons so how do you differentiate between the two?

Pickens helped Nashville sit on the right side of the playoff line at the end of the regular season. Unfortunately, Crepeau and Ottawa were on the outside looking in sitting four points behind their counterparts. Does team success play a role in determining the winner for an individual award? Inevitably yes. In general, the more successful a team is the more individual success that comes with it. Will a four-point difference in team performance be the determining factor in who wins the individual award? We will soon find out.

The eye test

If there is one take away from this article, it is simply this: statistics don’t tell the whole story. Looking at statistics gives you an idea of who a goalkeeper is, but they don’t give you the full picture. Save percentage doesn’t give you any information about the difficulty of the saves made. Shutouts don’t tell you how active a goalkeeper was on the day. There are a lot of variables beyond these basic statistics that determine the quality of a goalkeeper’s performance. There’s no better judge than the educated eye, and even that can be subjective.

All the goalkeepers mentioned in this article deserve a tremendous amount of recognition for their performances this season. Leading the league in any one of these categories is an incredible feat and one that should be applauded. The competition for the year-end Goalkeeper of the Year award is a fierce battle this year. There were plenty of great goalkeepers who had impressive seasons. No matter who the finalists are, or who wins the award, it was a pleasure to see all of the quality on display throughout the season. Keep your eyes peeled for future interviews with some of these goalkeepers on the Prime Focus Goalkeeping blog. Also, check out The Last Line: Soccer Podcast to hear us discuss our thoughts on the USL Goalkeeper of the Year award this season.

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