DC United’s Goalkeeping Merry Go Round

It’s nice to see the quotes coming out of the DC United communication bunker are all positive and professional. Soehn expressing confidence (or the lack thereof) in all his keepers, and Crayton saying he’s been doing this for years and it’s great to have three keepers who can play at any given time. Nice and lovey-dovey, at least on the surface.

However, I find it extremely unlikely anyone in the DC United organization is at all pleased with the way this saga is playing out from Dave Kaspar on down to the last player on the bench, no one should be happy that Soehn is unwilling to pull the trigger and name a starter.

That’s because goalkeepers are a different animal than any other field player. Soehn’s contention that they should vie for their job from week to week like anyone else is patently ridiculous. I suspect Alan Kelly, God rest his soul, would absolutely agree with me and be appalled at the way his United teams in the past are being held up as an example of why “rotating” goalkeepers is acceptable.

So let’s set that travesty to bed right now. From 1996 to 1999, the Golden Age of DC United soccer by the way when you could have put G.I. Joe with the Kung Fu Grip in the nets and gotten results, DC United used essentially four goalkeepers each of whom was the starter at any given time, but that is the key. Other than part of one year where particularly improbable circumstances forced changes on the fly, DC United always had a “starter” and made that clear.

In 1996, Causey played 19 games and Simpson 13, but I defy anyone to say Simpson was not the lock down starter as soon as he took over the reins in June. Causey was the starter named for the opener and kept that job until June, when he lost it to Simpson (who had missed the early part of the year playing indoor). After June, Causey only played a handful of matches mainly due to the crazy schedule back in those days like one stretch where United played 4 games in 10 days.

But 1997 is really the year Soehn and others are using as their shining example, and United incredibly did use four starters along the way of pretty much running the league table that year. Scott Garlick started the season, when Simpson was again contractually stuck playing indoor until May, and eventually played 13 games that year. Simpson played 7 games, Causey played 6, and Tom Presthus another 6. Sounds like a rotation doesn’t it?

Not really. Simpson was always expected to be the starter once he showed up after the indoor season, so Garlick on loan from the Carolina Dynamo, Causey, and draft pick Presthus were competing to be the interim starter until Simpson showed up. Garlick won the job, but ultimately was not impressive enough despite starting 3-0, and was sent back to the minors in a roster decision when Simpson did show up. So, Causey took over until Simpson was actually ready to play after transitioning into the team and from playing indoors. So, Simpson played 7 of the next 8 games until a knee injury needing surgery forced him out.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. Simpson’s knee scope was only to take a few weeks, so when Causey’s relatively high contract was up he was only offered a 30 day deal. He rejected that and was dealt or waived, I’m not sure which. Anyway, in the interim, DC had Presthus who was impressive in practice as the de facto starter, and they bought Garlick from the Dynamo, so they would have two keepers while Simpson was recuperating.

Little did the team know that Simpson’s simple surgery would turn into a life threatening infection and it would be almost a year before he played again. Anyway, in the meantime, Arena “rotated” Presthus and Garlick for the rest of the season because he really could not decide which one he had more faith in, but even the way he did that was better than the way Soehn is doing it now. Arena played Presthus five straight games (3-2 record), Garlick another five straight (2-3 interestingly) before he made up his mind to go with Garlick.

So Garlick, the guy that started the season on loan, then was dropped and waived before being re-signed ended up starting and winning the MLS Cup that year as well as being the starter for 1998 (25 games) until Presthus took his job late that year, and was pipped for his MLS Cup by a cruel set of referees. Presthus got his Cup in 1999 though, in a similar situation as the year before, this time Presthus came in as the starter (25 games) and Simpson, who really never got back to his pre-surgery form played a handful here and there. Frankly, had Simpson never needed surgery, I doubt Garlick or Presthus would ever have played more than a handful of games or been more than a footnote in United history.

Anyway, bottom line in this whole re-enactment is that barring brutally cruel circumstances, DC always had a “starter” or at the very least gave the competitors for the job significant games before they made a decision, BECAUSE THAT’S THE WAY IT IS DONE! You don’t dangle goalkeepers like you would a field player, they are a completely different species and rely on a completely different mindset, as well as have an inordinately huge impact on the confidence of the team in front of them.

Goalkeepers need to know that every little decision they make in every single situation won’t be dissected like fetal pig. They have to be supremely confident and make snap decisions in telling others what to do because there is no one on the field to bail them out. Field players talk all the time and make calls for each other, so no problem if Burch reads a situation wrong, Namoff or Jakovic or Simms can make the same call. Not the keeper, he has to make the right choice every time, as well as stop shots and gauge the angle and speed of every ball anywhere near the box on every different surface in the league, never making a mistake because there is no one behind him to make up for it if he triangulates wrong.

In my opinion, Soehn has never really been sold on Crayton, but the fact remains when the goalkeeping poo hit the fan last year, Crayton was brought in and settled things down. Not the perfect solution, but he got the job done and deserved to stay the starter for as long as he could keep the job. Which means when Kocic or Wicks clearly beat him out, he steps aside, and I bet he would do so with no complaints. But, that is not how this has played out.

Merely looking at their records bears that out. Wicks is currently winless and undefeated at 0-0-3, Crayton has the lone loss, but also two of the three wins as he is 2-1-3, while Kocic is 1-0-1. All of them have given up bad goals, and all of them have pulled out good results. There really is no clear pattern to any of them yet.

Unfortunately, Soehn seized his chance to put the job up for grabs early in the year by claiming Crayton’s pre-season injuries and his mother’s funeral in Africa meant he was not ready to start the season, even though Crayton himself said he could play. Then when Wicks went down injured, he grudgingly went back to Crayton only until Kocic was deemed ready and then the draft pick got his shot, and seemingly crapped out too. Now that Wicks has gotten another chance, Crayton has clearly been shoved aside as you never see a healthy starter in street clothes in the stands of a home game unless something has gone drastically wrong.

Now, that said, I’d still be fine with the benching Crayton if Soehn was handling the situation differently and actually gave the starting job to someone else for a decent stretch of games to whoever had earned it. But, consider the way Soehn has chosen to pick a starter. Wicks got two games under the auspices of Crayton not being ready yet, then Crayton getting the reins back for four games, then Kocic for the Dallas game (as well as the Open Cup tie with them), then Crayton a game, Kocic another game, Crayton again, now Wicks again for the last two in a row including the NY Open Cup match.

Now I ask you, is that any way to give them an honest shot at taking over the job, not to mention build up their confidence? Especially when you’re saying publicly that all of them have weaknesses and you’re waiting for one of them to seize the job (which implies you expect them to continue to make mistakes and will be pleasantly surprised when they stop). You think it is going to help them knowing they can be yanked at any time for any mistakes? Soehn has said Wicks finally took a big step forward with that RSL tie, but what do you think happens if Warf gives up a bad goal in NE? Think Temperamental Tommy sticks with him? Me neither.

All of which hurts your entire organization given United’s current situation. The communication on the field is constantly being switched up to adjust to different goalkeepers who play differently, which has impacted directly on wins and losses for certain. It also can’t help in the locker-room if players are constantly being second guessed and pointing fingers due to simple communication breakdowns that should have long been sorted out.

But, there are now jobs on the line too as Crayton’s contract ends in about two months, and something must most likely be done about replacing him. He surely is gone at the transfer window, for I can’t imagine he’s going to sign for less money with a team that is openly disrespecting him. He can’t love America that much. So, Soehn has in effect said Kocic or Wicks better be ready to play the rest of the season or DC has to find someone else better.

However, someone better costs a lot of money and/or a trade which would put Kaspar in a difficult situation. Crayton only frees up about 90K (half his season pay starting the last half of last year), so maybe you find someone for that, but most likely not. So, who gets traded or waived in order to have the money to bring in a solid goalkeeper? You think that situation won’t cause some friction and/or upset the chemistry of a team in late summer who is hopefully gearing up for the playoffs?

Not only that, but good goalkeepers are hard to find as we found out last season with Wells and Carvallo, both of whom had impressive resumes, but less than stellar results. The Wells fiasco cost the team Boswell, who will be sacrificed for the next goalkeeper hopeful?

Bottom line as this is getting a bit wordy, in my opinion Soehn has botched this particular coaching task. Crayton is as good as gone and Wicks and Kocic still have question marks. This may still play out well, though if Soehn really does stick to one keeper for a good chunk of games and gives them an honest run. If he remains quick on the trigger to yank keepers, then I can’t imagine this ending well and DC United isn’t good enough to win trophies in this league without some solid goalkeeping.

-As for some MLS housekeeping, it was a much better week for prognostication. Of course Guevara and TFC made a fool of me in soundly beating NE, DC really chunked their game with RSL who they really should have been able to beat, and Dallas let me down with my wild card pick. BUT, Houston thumped SJ as expected and I called the Chivas-KC tie and the Seattle-Colorado tie, as well as the Fire beating NY. All in all, 4-3 on the week and creeping back to respectability at 36-40.

Anyway, a couple games before my preview Friday, so here’s a few more blind guesses.

The Crew will squeak by SJ at home more due to the Quakes ineptness than the Crew’s brilliance as I think Yallop will build a moat around Cannon and the Crew never really play light’s out at home anyway. 1-0 to the defending champs tonite.
The Fire at Chivas is really a firecracker. The top two in each conference with only one loss between them. Chivas almost perfect at home but showing cracks lately, the Fire a better away record than at home (3 wins away as opposed to 1 at home), and seemingly able to tie anyone anywhere. No Kljestan for Chivas, but that probably helps them as badly as he was playing, the Fire get Segares back. Fire – great offense, medium defense against Chivas medium offense, great defense and at home. Going to be a mistake that decides this one and I’m betting the Fire make it. Chivas 2-1.

3 replies
  1. Chris Webb
    Chris Webb says:

    Shakes head ruefully..

    WAY overblown on this. Bottom line is that no one is stepping up to the #1 spot and Soehn is hamstrung by it.

    How many times last season were United fans imploring, nay begging Soehn to drop Wells for the backup (whomever it might have been at the time)?

    So, here we are a year later and Soehn is trying to find a #1 keeper. Let this thing play out. This column was way too early to bring out.

    I don’t think any of us is quite comfortable yet with Wicks in goal. That’s completely understandable but the real problem here is that Crayton fouled up the works with his poor play. This issue is a non-issue if Crayton simply comes into camp in shape and willing to defend his #1 spot. He didn’t and the after effects are spreading their way through the club.

    I don’t blame Soehn for trying to get one of these guys to win the job. I blame the incumbent #1 for treating the offseason like King Pete treats waffles!

  2. Mike Martin
    Mike Martin says:

    Way to go Rickey. Reading is fundamental. I’m saying that even the way Soehn is putting the job up for grabs is wrong too. Even if you beleive it should be up for grabs, as I do not, at least Soehn should be finding a keeper in a somewhat managed way. Not helter skelter yanking and promoting.

    This is not too early to say so especially given the circumstances.

    Besides, the site has been way to tranquil of late, let’s shake things up and have some arguments!

  3. julius
    julius says:

    I’m siding with Mike. God, I feel dirty just writing that. This keeper situation has been bungled. When outfield players like Luci or everyone’s favorite Fred (psst-highly paid-$240,000 for 1 goal 2 assists) get cold, Soehn (and most every other manager everywhere) keeps them playing to get them back into rhythm. Benching players is only motivates them if they have repeatedly shown they did not perform, not win your spot.

    By the way Wicks gave up two goals against NE and I don’t blame him for either but I bet you Kocic starts against NY. That is how you know Soehn handled this all wrong.

    (If I’m wrong I’ll shut up about this and never mention how I got a Crayton shirt and am now pissed he went from hero to just another mistake from the 2008 team.)

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