-Ed. Note: This is a guest post by Bill Reno. Bill is an American goalkeeper enthusiast. When he's not busy researching obscure collegiate rosters or watching highlights of lower tier teams, you can usually find him enjoying a nice slice of 'za somewhere around Dallas, TX. Check out his site Everybody Soccer for more goalkeeper-specific content or find him on Twitter @letsallsoccer.
As the entire Atlanta United fan base knows, Brad Guzan will be joining the club this summer. We’re not exactly sure when Guzan will slide over, but it probably won’t be until mid-to-late June. Middlesbrough’s last match is against Liverpool on May 21st but with the World Cup Qualifying matches (June 8th, 11th) Atlanta will likely be Guzan-less for another 7-10 matches.
In the meantime, Alec Kann has had a respectable start to the season and would be a bit of a surprise if he lost his starting spot before Guzan stepped in. While some may want to see 24-year-old Alex Tambakis in net, realistically it’s Kann’s job to lose. Kann hasn’t saved any points for Atlanta this season but seeing how the 2016 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year currently has a 54% save percentage, it’s nice to see him not bleed goals left and right.
With so many goalkeepers struggling this year, there’s a feeling of a lost generation of goalkeeping currently transpiring. Not only does MLS feel short on realistic starting options, the US is thin on potential starters despite being only 14 months away from the World Cup. Oddly enough, Kann is a great case study for the goalkeeping shortage, both domestically and internationally.
The lack of developed goalkeeping is a result of a couple things. (This is relevant to Kann, just give me a second.) While there are currently thirty-eight teams between USL and NASL, the USL is only entering its seventh season. So when MLS continued to expand over the past decade and veteran goalkeepers retired, there were less and less tested goalkeepers to turn to. Essentially every late-twenty year old American goalkeeper has missed out in a crucial stage of development because there weren’t enough USL/NASL games available, if at all.
Alec Kann, who turns 27 in August, has only just recently played his 44th professional game in six years, with only 15 of those being in MLS. For all the hate the college game receives, Kann actually played more games at Furman (66) in less time than he did as a professional. Compared to Jon Kempin (turned 24 this month, 49 professional matches), Jesse Gonzalez (21, 32 matches) or Northwestern alum Tyler Miller (24, 32 matches). All of them are likely going to be close to doubling Kann’s count when they turn 27.
Naturally a lack of development will not only change the on-field performance of a player, but also the mindset. Younger goalkeepers iron out their game over time, finding out what style they’d like to adapt and knowing they have a long road ahead of them. Unfortunately for Kann, he doesn’t have that luxury with the current stage of career. While goalkeepers have longer careers, most are finished developing around 28.
All that to say, it’s very tough to say what Kann’s ceiling is truly or even what type of goalkeeper he is. Theoretically he should be entering the peak of his career but he still has a number of games to get under his belt before we can truly expect that for him. On top of that, Atlanta have protected him very well. While many are wowed by Atlanta’s attacking prowess, Atlanta has limited Kann to only a handful of tough situations. Kann has only faced one 1v1 situation this year (before the D.C. match) and has otherwise had a comfortable and straightforward time in net, which is probably fine with Kann. He’s not a goalkeeper who is going to chase down crosses and he’s not going to overplay his hand in the box. While other teams might need a more active goalkeeper, Atlanta doesn’t because the defense can take care of it for the most part. Perhaps the one big knock on Kann is that he still doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence with his distribution but for someone who only has 15 MLS starts, we can’t say that’s historically been a problem for him.
Looking at Kann’s upcoming successor, Guzan is met with the same number of question marks. Guzan was only briefly viewed in positive light by USMNT fans. During his first three seasons as Aston Villa’s starter (2012-2015), Guzan was showing some incredibly positive signs that he was the goalkeeper ready to supplant Howard.
For three straight years, Guzan stood on his head to keep Aston Villa out of relegation. The life-or-death stretch of playing was highlighted with Guzan earning Aston Villa’s Player of the Year Award in 2013. Unfortunately his legacy was immediately wiped away his last year at the club. In 2015-16, Aston Villa finished dead last in the Premiership with a 27/76 goal differential. Guzan’s heart was called into question multiple times by fans and met with absurd drama like “gumgate”. Watching him now, he’s lost the smoothness and calming demeanor he once owned and understandably makes fans leery to call him their starter.
Guzan and Kann share similarities in their playing style as mostly reserved goalkeepers, but possibly the biggest similarity is that we don’t know what their true ceiling is. Perhaps Kann is a late bloomer if he’s given more game time, perhaps not. Maybe Guzan can return to the form that we saw in 2012-2013, maybe not. The situation is heightened with the fact that Guzan will likely be sitting on hefty salary. For a goalkeeper to be met with high expectations, Guzan is actually in a great position to have his third consecutive less-than-stellar season with as many different teams.
I suppose the silver lining in Atlanta’s goalkeeping shuffle is that they can be successful with just about any goalkeeper with how good their defense is. So if Guzan can’t succeed with Atlanta, frankly, it puts to rest the idea of him as a USMNT candidate. Alternatively, Atlanta will most assuredly make a playoff run (*double checks Eastern Conference standings and nods confidently*) and the postseason stage should give Guzan a great jumping board to prepare him for any large international tournaments that might happen in 2018.