Mostly unseen here in the present, Minnesota United rookie Dayne St. Clair nonetheless is being groomed to be his team’s goalkeeper of the future.
And one for the soccer’s future as well.
At 6-4, St. Clair has the height, reach and range that United’s new goalkeeping coach, Stewart Kerr, reminds cannot be taught. At age 22, St. Clair is from a generation that never has known a time when goalkeepers used their hands to play a ball passed back to them by a teammate.
Soccer’s “back-pass” rule was established in 1992 to speed play and enliven the game after the 1990 World Cup was deemed dull because goalkeepers held the ball far too much before booting it back downfield.
More than 25 years later, the game has evolved as goalkeepers and goalkeeping have evolved. Both were pushed forward first by that rule change. Later, it was statistical analytics that value ball possession, and visionary coaches such as Pep Guardiola, who re-imagined the game wherever he went, from Barcelona to Munich and now Manchester City.
Danish keeper Peter Schmeichel at Manchester United was among the first to immediately exploit the new rule nearly 30 years ago. Goalkeepers now often must be able to play the ball with their feet as well as save it with their hands, reflexes and athleticism. They’ve become an 11th field player in a changed game, a threat who starts his team’s offense from its very back position with passes both near and far.
Arguably the best in Major League Soccer is Nick Rimando of Real Salt Lake, which comes to Allianz Field on Sunday for a game against Minnesota United with playoff implications.
United coach Adrian Heath calls Rimando, at age 40, “absolutely fantastic” when the ball is at his feet.
“The day when the keeper just makes saves is long, long gone,” Heath said. “They have to be an integral part now, how you play in and around the back. The ones with the better feet will eventually keep rising and rising because it’s an integral part of the game now.”
There’s a name for those who play the position in a reinvented way.
“We call them sweeper keepers,” Heath said.
Beautiful, in any language
United veteran starting goalkeeper Vito Mannone, an Italian, was just 17 when innovative Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger, a Frenchman now retired, brought him to London and taught him to play a “beautiful” brand of soccer in which Mannone sometimes trained as an outfield player.
“He always had this philosophy to play amazing football no matter what,” Mannone said. “Always play football from the back and never waste any chance. You’re required to have ability with your feet. The ball starts with you and sometimes the spaces open because you play in a certain way.”
Mannone learned that beautiful way. St. Clair has never known any other way. One of his coaches focused St. Clair on playing with his feet when he shifted from playing center back to full-time goalkeeper when he was 13.
“I missed that part of the game when I moved to goal,” St. Clair said. “It’s something you can always work on, but I feel like I’m comfortable with the ball at my feet. My teammates can attest to that.”
When Kerr played goalkeeper for Scotland’s Celtic Football Club and in England in the 1990s, he never had his own assistant coach.
“When I started playing, the goalkeeper was there to keep the ball out of the net,” said Kerr, whose playing career ended at age 26 because of a back injury. “When the other players trained, you’d go with the other goalkeeper and mess around for 30 minutes until they needed you for crossing and finishing. It’s a complex position now.”
Just like many hockey coaches who found inefficiencies playing a “dump-and-chase” style, soccer’s innovative minds have studied data and concluded there must be a better way than have your goalkeeper boot the ball high and deep toward the other goal.
“The game has always evolved,” United defender Ike Opara said. “Right now, teams love goalies who can play with their feet. That’s the cycle we’re in at the moment. Who knows what it will be in a few years? It’s no different than the NFL, the NBA. Teams see success and try to replicate it.”
A disciple of Dutch star attacker and Barcelona coach Johan Cruyff, Guardiola won trophies galore and league titles in Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and England’s Premier leagues. He also has his own disciples. One is Guardiola’s former longtime assistant and fellow Spaniard Domenec Torrent, who has coached MLS’ New York City FC to the Eastern Conference lead in his first full season.
“Because Pep had success in football, many, many coaches want to play that same way,” Torrent said earlier this season. “It’s very important, I say many times, it’s not about copy-and-paste. You have to understand the why. If you want to make a buildup, if you like to keep possession, you need these types of players. It’s very important.”
The buildup comes from a team playing from its back lines. It starts with a goalkeeper who can make good decisions, play with his feet and start attacks that help teams possess the ball while they stretch an opposing defense and create weaknesses elsewhere.
“It’s like having 11 outfield players,” Heath said. “That never used to be the case.”
United sporting director Manny Lagos calls goalkeepers in the modern game “a part of your attack” and an active player who can run between three to five miles a game.
“They’re very much considered as much a field player as a goalie,” Lagos said. “It’s tough to score when you can’t get the ball.”
Ultimately, a goalkeeper must keep the ball out of his goal. Kerr said the game someday will morph again, but that truth will not.
“The position will evolve again, but it will all come back again to solid goalkeepers, especially if you want to make a career out of it,’’ Kerr said. “If you can marry the both — be good with the ball at your feet and still keep it out of the net — you’ll be fine.”