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Jan 31, 2006

Goalkeeper quality has thinned out

The days of dominating goalkeeping in Major League Soccer have passed us by.

Just five years ago, the position of goalkeeper was thriving, as so many of the league's net-minders were at the top of their games. Joe Cannon was as mesmerizing a shot stopper as he is these days, and Tim Howard was making jaw-dropping saves two years before Manchester United came calling. With so many goalkeepers at the top of their games, from Zach Thornton to Nick Rimando, it was easy to feel as though the league had an embarrassment of riches that would always exist.

Well, five years later, what once was the league's strength is in danger of becoming a glaring weakness. Whether it is the diminishing pool of established keepers or the scary reality that quality goalkeeping prospects are becoming very difficult to find, teams can no longer take for granted being able to find someone reliable to hand the gloves to.

Consider the current pool of starters. How many would you say are big-game winners, capable of carrying a team by making save after seemingly impossible save? Cannon is still considered the best in the league and there is little question he fits the bill. Who else is there? Matt Reis, Kevin Hartman and Pat Onstad are solid and reliable, but a notch below Cannon. After that quartet, there is a middle class with some quality, but limited potential for growth.

You have Jonny Walker, who is capable of joining the top group but who has yet to enjoy a full season of elite play since arriving in MLS in 2003. Then there is Brad Guzan, the only goalkeeper in the league who could be called a promising topflight prospect. Tony Meola showed flashes of his legendary form late last year, but he will be 37 when the 2006 season begins and there is no guarantee he will ever fully recover from the Achilles surgery he had last year.

The drop after that group is scary. Jon Busch's career was on the fast track to stardom before last year's torn ACL, which threatens to limit the explosiveness of a goalkeeper whose game relies heavily on just that. If that description sounds familiar, it's because it applied to Nick Rimando two years ago. Now Rimando is regarded as a liability, rather than strength, for D.C. United. The same could be said for Zach Thornton and Bo Oshoniyi, two projected starters who would be out of work if there were any sort of competition to push them.

Where have all the good goalkeepers gone? Four former MLS goalkeepers currently ply their trade in Europe (Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann and Adin Brown) and in the years since those four have departed, MLS has waited in vain for reinforcements. There have been young players to emerge, such as Rimando and Busch, but both have faced serious knee injuries.

The only blue-chip goalkeeper prospect to be signed by the league in the last five years aside from Guzan is D.J. Countess, who collected six-figure salaries for four years as team after team took a chance on him, hoping he would live up to his expectations. He never did, and teams hoping to find the next Howard or Cannon were left to wonder when the league would produce another star at the position.

Some will argue whether weakened goalkeeping is really a problem after all. Fans continue to clamor for more goals, and with teams constantly looking for ways to save on the salary cap, goalkeeper might soon become a neglected position where teams can look to save money. The fact that Colorado contemplated trading Cannon makes you wonder whether any teams really value the position.

Does the league have other positional issues to address? Of course it does. Attacking midfielder is unquestionably the league's most glaring need, and left midfielder isn't far behind, but what makes the decline in the goalkeeper position disturbing is that it was such a position of strength just a few years ago. The decline was rapid and could be more glaring with further league expansion on the horizon.

Is there any help on the way? Not this year, with MLS Draft delivering one of the weakest crops of goalkeepers in years. There is hope in 2007, when Clemson All-American Phil Marfuggi will be available and if Maryland standout Chris Seitz decides to leave school early.

There also continues to be the belief that Keller and Friedel will make their way to MLS to wrap up their careers. When will that happen? Based on the stellar form both are enjoying in Europe, it is difficult to imagine them coming home soon.

For now, all fans of the position can do is wait and hope. You can hope for Guzan to develop into a clutch performer. You can hope for Marfuggi and Seitz to sign with MLS and signal a new era for goalkeepers. You can also hope someone like Zach Wells, Will Hesmer or Jay Nolly emerges as a difference maker. It seems like a lot to ask for, but that just goes to show how far removed we are from the glory days of MLS goalkeeping.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.