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Sunday, June 23, 2024

USMNT goalkeeper tiers: How Matt Turner and more stack up ahead of Copa America and the Olympics

The U.S. men’s national team was hampered by issues at striker throughout 2022 and the start of 2023, but 2024 is poised to be similarly characterized by concerns at the opposite end of the field.

Long the program’s strongest position, the goalkeeper pool is now an area of concern as the team’s top option (Matt Turner) is mired by mistakes and poor Premier League form. Perhaps more worrying is the lack of viable alternatives playing at a high level this winter, with multiple alternatives failing to play at all in the first half of the European season. Meanwhile, there hasn’t been an obvious Turner-like riser through MLS ranks.

This summer will be among the most vital periods for the USMNT between now and the 2026 World Cup, with the Copa América providing the best competition the team will face in between now and co-hosting the game’s biggest event. A month later, the U.S. will participate in Olympic men’s soccer for the first time since 2008.

With both tournament rosters in mind, here’s the first of this year’s tiers for USMNT goalkeepers.

Tier 1: Vying to start

Matt Turner, Nottingham Forest 

The period that Turner is going through right now is without a doubt the most difficult of his career. Turner surpassed the toughest of odds to get where he is now, but after a difficult stretch the past few months, patience is wearing thin within the Forest fan base.

Part of the diminished goodwill is without a doubt on Turner — when you’re the first-choice goalkeeper at a club, you are expected to perform, period. But the situation at Forest hasn’t been the easiest for a goalkeeper, either.

Every keeper wants to feel needed, important, and secure in themselves on game day. The last thing you want is to be looking over your shoulder, worrying about making a mistake, and going out and trying to show your quality by getting yourself involved in the play. With Odysseas Vlachodimos and Matz Sels both rotating into Nuno Espirito Santo’s lineup in recent months, Turner’s situation is far from stable.

The key for Turner is to go back to the basics, focus on what he does well, and simplify his game. That’s easier said than done, especially when your team is in a relegation battle like Forest is and it feels like everyone around you is doubting that you can do the job. It’s only human to want to force things and show everyone your quality, but it’s an urge you have to resist as a goalkeeper.

Fortunately for him, Wednesday may have provided him a sorely needed good performance to keep him in Espírito Santo’s plans. Less than a week after the club prioritized signing another goalkeeper (Selz) on deadline day, it was Turner who made the crucial save in an FA Cup fourth-round penalty shootout win over Bristol City.

“It will give him confidence,” Espírito Santo said after the game. “We know it will not have been easy after the decision we took to change in the Premier League but his response has been professional.”

Fortunately for international purposes, he has rarely disappointed in a USMNT shirt and he likely remains the national team’s starter with no real threat to his starting spot. However, if his poor form with Forest does carry over to the national team, or if he spends a significant amount of time on the bench, the door may be opened sooner rather than later to someone further down the pecking order.

Gabriel ‘Gaga’ Slonina, Eupen (on loan from Chelsea)

The hype surrounding Slonina is beyond justified, with the Illinois native still seen as the future of the position for the U.S. The question is whether or not Berhalter can afford to remain patient with the 19-year-old’s development if the rest of the goalkeeping pool forces him into action.

The most important thing for right now is that he’s playing regularly. Currently on loan with KAS Eupen in Belgium’s first division, he’s learning and getting to experience games with different stakes than he experienced with the Chicago Fire which, at his age, is invaluable. The fact that he’s playing for a team in a relegation fight shouldn’t scare people, like some have claimed — it’s good for him.

Standing 6-foot-4, Slonina has all the physical attributes you want in a goalkeeper, and he dominates his box very well. He is an excellent shot stopper and makes some truly brilliant saves. His reactions are excellent, and his instincts and proactive play are some of his greatest attributes.

However, his distribution and game management with the ball at his feet are arguably his greatest weakness at the moment. This is both from dead balls and passes from open play, especially while under pressure from the opposition. At times, he appears overly committed to finding short options when longer distribution would be the wiser play, as his launch rate (that is, how often his passes travel 40+ yards) is just 23%. For comparison’s sake, Turner’s launch rate is 41.3% while Manchester City ace Ederson is more comparable at 20.7%.

If he wants to take the next step in his career, and legitimately challenge at the next level, it’s an area of his game he’ll want to focus on and improve. With other options in contention for the Olympics, Slonina could easily be one of the three goalkeepers selected to the Copa América roster. It’s only a matter of how soon he challenges Turner for the No. 1 shirt.

Tier 2: On the bubble

Drake Callender, Inter Miami

Though Drake Callender had an inconsistent start to last year, his game improved remarkably as the season progressed. His performances during Miami’s run to the Leagues Cup title were especially impressive. For all of Lionel Messi’s brilliance that month, it’s hard to imagine that Miami could have won that tournament without Callender’s big stops.

However, Miami fell just as quick as they rose last summer, missing out on a slim chance at the playoffs when Messi got hurt. In hindsight, it was probably a year too early for the now 26-year-old Callender to make a realistic push for stardom, but last summer gave us all an exciting glimpse of what the future could hold if all the pieces seamlessly fall into place in 2024.

Even though Callender’s rise has been impressive, the reality is he still has some work to do if he wants to etch his name as one of the three goalkeepers called into USMNT camp on a consistent basis. His shot-weighted goals prevented rate last year put him closer to MLS peers like Patrick Schulte and Tyler Miller than an international-caliber goalkeeper like Roman Bürki or Đorđe Petrović.

Though viewed as a good shot-stopper and someone who is aggressive off his line, Callender still occasionally struggles with his decision making with the ball at his feet, particularly while under pressure.

Importantly though, he is backed by a club that believes in him and seems willing to help him work through his growing pains as they happen — which is a luxury that not every goalkeeper is afforded in their career. Given the meticulously curated roster that Miami has had to build to accommodate Messi and his friends, it’s unlikely that they’ll look to supplant Callender any time soon.

The biggest challenge moving forward will be to perform consistently for an entire season and eliminate some of the lows that we saw from him at times last season — and now on Miami’s preseason tour.

Ethan Horvath, Cardiff City

It’s been a strange half year for Ethan Horvath. After helping Nottingham Forest and Luton Town earn promotion to the Premier League in consecutive seasons (being a vital piece of the puzzle for Luton, in particular), Horvath found himself on the outside looking in at the beginning of the season upon his return to Nottingham.

Forest first signed Turner in the summer and then strengthened their goalkeeping even further with Greece international Vlachodimos a few weeks later. Since Wales international Wayne Hennessey was also on the roster, Horvath was deemed surplus to requirements.

Despite being in limbo at the club level, Horvath has remained in contention for the USMNT. He was first called up for the U.S.’s friendlies in September, then again in October, and their Nation Leagues matches in November. Horvath even started in the USA’s 4-0 win over Oman in September after Turner had to leave camp due to the birth of his second child.

When asked about Horvath’s club situation in September, Berhalter admitted that his status wasn’t ideal, but stressed that he believed it would only be temporary, and that his experience and familiarity with the program continued to be of importance for the national team.

Last week, Horvath got the move he needed when he completed a permanent transfer to Championship club Cardiff City. If he can swiftly rediscover the form he had in goal while leading Luton to promotion last season (19 clean sheets in 44 matches) with Cardiff, it may just be enough for him to make a legitimate challenge to the No. 1 spot this summer, should Turner continue to struggle.

Zack Steffen, Colorado Rapids

Five years ago, when Zack Steffen turned a MLS goalkeeper of the year-winning performance into a move to Manchester City, it would have been hard to envision him on the outside looking in when it comes to the USMNT goalkeeping picture. However, what seemed to be a dream transfer did little for his development.

It all started with a string of inconsistent performances for club and country in the 2021/22 season. Steffen was then loaned off to Middlesbrough in an attempt to rebuild his confidence. Despite playing almost every minute for Boro, the next blow would come when Steffen was surprisingly left off the World Cup squad after playing a key role through much of qualifying.

Steffen did his best to rebuild himself and turn a negative into a positive by making a late promotion push with Boro, only to experience heartbreak once again in the EFL Championship playoffs when they lost 1-0 against Coventry. If that wasn’t enough, after returning to City in June, it was announced that Steffen would miss the next several months of the season following knee surgery.

After half a year away from first-team soccer, Steffen is finally getting another chance by returning to MLS, committing his future to the Colorado Rapids. A return to MLS could end up being excellent for him — a reset for the once-promising goalkeeper should he stay healthy.

Still just 28, Steffen is entering his prime years as a goalkeeper. His skill set has never been in question, he has all the tools to succeed, the problem is that it’s been years since he last consistently put it together.

It’s understandable if there is doubt about his ability to work back into the USMNT fold after being left out for as long as he has, but should the players above him fail to take the No. 1 shirt and run with it — in particular Turner, the player who most benefited from Steffen’s wavering form — it could open the door for him once again.

Tier 3: Olympics/2026 prospects

Roman Celentano, FC Cincinnati 

At 22 years old, Roman Celentano is already building an impressive career. After becoming the second overall pick in the 2022 MLS draft, the FC Cincinnati goalkeeper has shown that he is not just a future talent but someone who is ready for the spotlight right now.

With 158 saves and 15 clean sheets he’s already become the young club’s all-time leader in both categories in just two years of playing professionally, while emerging as one of the top goalkeepers in the league.

Under the guidance of one of the country’s premier goalkeeper coaches in Paul Rogers, it’s quite possible that Celentano will only continue to evolve and refine his skills in the years to come. Though Celentano unquestionably still has room to grow, the biggest question isn’t just how good he can be in MLS, but if he has what it takes to make it in one of the biggest leagues in Europe.

However, if there is something that could limit his options in the future, it’s his old-school approach to goalkeeping. Though he’s a tremendous shot-stopper, if he wants to make the next jump successfully, Celentano has to develop the rest of his skill set.

Although somewhat by design, his role in Pat Noonan’s system asks very little of Celentano’s distribution beyond his first line of teammates. He completed 38.3% of his passes over 35 yards in 2023, an identical figure to the average of MLS’ 42 goalkeepers who logged at least 500 minutes. Those were seldom used to break lines or catch a defense in transition, ranking 32nd with just 2.36 passes into the attacking third per 90.

He was similarly pedestrian at “sweeper-keeper” actions. His 4.7% rate of stopping crosses was in the 45th percentile of MLS goalkeepers last year, while his 0.61 defensive actions outside of the box per 90 sat in the 25th percentile. These weren’t terribly nomadic defensive pursuits, either: his defensive actions happened at an average of 12.1 yards from the goal line, down to the 17th percentile league-wide.

With the likes of Turner, Horvath and Slonina ahead of him in the pecking order, it’s probably a few years too early to be thinking about consistent call ups at the senior international level for Celentano.

Patrick Schulte, Columbus Crew

2023 was a breakout season for 22-year-old Patrick Schulte. After entering the season as Columbus’ backup, Schulte ultimately won the job over five-year MLS veteran and club mainstay Eloy Room, who helped deliver the 2020 MLS Cup title. In what was supposed to be a transitional year for Columbus, the Crew got hot at the right time and went on an incredible run in the playoffs to dethrone defending champion LAFC in MLS Cup.

However, it’s a question whether his brilliant run late in the season is a sign of things to come or a case of a goalkeeper catching lightning in a bottle. The goal for this season will be to become a more consistent and complete goalkeeper while dealing with the expectations that have suddenly been thrust on his shoulders now that he’s an MLS Cup champion and U.S. international. He notched 1.12 goals prevented last year, below Celentano and Chris Brady while narrowly outperforming Callender despite playing on a far better team than Miami’s goalkeeper.

There have been plenty of goalkeepers in MLS with far more experience who struggled with sudden expectations, only to regress to the mean as quickly as they rose to prominence. That’s not to take anything away from what he achieved last season, but repeating that success again in 2024 will be even harder. That reality, in addition to the list of players in front of him at the international level, is a big reason it’s likely that Schulte will be a more viable option for the Olympics roster than the Copa America squad.

Chris Brady, Chicago Fire

In his first full season as the starting goalkeeper for the Chicago Fire, the 19-year-old was a revelation. Replacing Slonina after his move to Chelsea, Brady appeared in 29 regular season matches and kept eight clean sheets in MLS play. It’s hard to remember that after just his second game of the season, there were some who doubted if he had the ability to be a starting goalkeeper in MLS.

It was Brady’s first game after officially being named the Fire’s No. 1 goalkeeper, and though he had an otherwise strong performance for 89 minutes it was his last-minute gaffe against Joaquín Torres that allowed the Philadelphia Union to walk away with the 1-0 victory.

That heartbreak at the death could have broken the young goalkeeper, but the way he responded to the error spoke volumes of his maturity and character, and showed a goalkeeper determined to prove those doubting him wrong.

As the season progressed, Brady would only continue to get better. Watching his performances week after week, it was at times easy to forget just how young Brady was when he was often single-handedly keeping his team in games. Although the Fire would ultimately miss out on the playoffs by a single point, it was clear that they were in the race in large part because of Brady.

This season, Brady and the Fire will be hoping to take the next step in their development and become a legitimate playoff contender. With a better team in front of him in 2024, it could be Brady who ultimately reaps the greatest reward.

Should Brady repeat his heroics for the Fire again this season, he will be hoping to take the next step in his career and earn his first senior appearance with the U.S. If he’s able to succeed in doing so, it’s quite possible he will be the next American goalkeeper to follow in Slonina’s footsteps and make the jump to a top European league sooner rather than later.

(Top photo by Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

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