It wasn’t long ago when everyone was wondering where all the USA goal keepers went. For decades we had a parade of great keepers from Keller to Friedel to Howard. Even guys behind them like Hahnemann were great keepers with good European careers that barely got a chance to play. Then following Couva, when it was shown that Howard was past it (and he would retire soon after), there wasn’t much. Guzan seemed the next big time goal keeper, but his career in England stalled and he had moved back to MLS. Tim Melia, Steffen Frei, Louis Robles, Bill Hamid, Sean Johnson, and others had not ever taken the next step up in level.
Zach Steffen was a good young MLS goal keeper and was just about defaulted too at the start of the Berhalter era. Ethan Horvath had been playing great for Brugge, in Belgium and the Champions League, but Belgian legend Simon Mignolet wanted to end his career playing for Brugge and they sat Ethan. Turns out he wasn’t close to retiring and is still starting matches for them.
But this Summer we saw that Horvath could come in and play well, really well. We also saw a new candidate finally get a run of games and also play really well, Matt Turner. Turner played so well in the Gold Cup that many pundits and fans want him to start when World Cup Qualifying begins in 10 days. There is no doubt that his shot stopping is extraordinary. But will Berhalter start him, or the Nations League hero Horvath, or the presumptive #1, Steffen? At least it is a good choice, with maybe no wrong answer, as opposed to a few years ago.
One factor that is not discussed as much in the equation of who to start, is that the team plays very differently with Turner in net then the other two. Comparing the Nations League final versus Mexico to the Gold Cup final versus Mexico, we can see it with some data. Both games against the same opponent, both games went 120 minutes. Horvath played a good chunk (50+ minutes) of the CNL final as did Steffen (65 minutes). Turner played the entire Gold Cup final.
Let’s look at actions where the USA goal keepers have the ball with time and space to either play it short to keep possession or play it long. This includes dead ball restarts like goal kicks or when a defender or midfielder has played it back and the keeper has to use his feet.
Short – 15
Long – 9
Short – 2
Long – 14
As is evident, the team just played differently with Turner in there then Horvath or Steffen. If you watch the two games, you can see how the USMNT rarely, if ever, plays it back to Turner to keep possession. If they do play it back, it was almost always a long clearance by Turner. Having just watched the game again, I don’t think the USMNT recovered possession following a long kick from Turner once. Every time it was a turn over, but of course, on the other side of the field.
There are some caveats, such as maybe it was the presence of Miles Robinson and/or James Sands and George Bello that made Berhalter instruct the team to play long and not try and keep possession. But I don’t think they played that different throughout the tournament. Most of the time it came to Turner or started with Turner it was a long kick.
There is debate about whether this in itself is enough. Some saying that the shot stopping by Turner is too good to care. To tell the truth, I don’t know if it is enough. Listening to Gregg Berhalter in a recent USSF podcast, he seems to indicate the USA goal keepers will change depending on expectations about the opponent. For instance, if we don’t expect to have the ball and expect to give up more shots on our net, Turner makes sense. If we want to dominate on the ball and don’t expect to give up many shots at all, then Horvath or Steffen make sense.