In a way, Philadelphia Union’s goalkeeping situation in 2010 mirrored that of their season as a whole: Glimpses of vast potential, inexperience that often proved costly, and better form towards the end of the club’s inaugural campaign.
Every Union fan is familiar with the story. Brad Knighton was drafted in the MLS Expansion Draft, before Chris Seitz was acquired shortly thereafter from Real Salt Lake to set up a preseason GK battle that included SuperDraft selection Brian Perk. Seitz was the presumed favorite for the job after coming to the Union as the league’s highest-touted backup, thought to be a candidate for the future U.S. Men’s National Team throne.
Seitz did in fact get the nod, and at times he made spectacular saves that justified his starting role. Over the course of 22 starts, however, one too many soft goals were conceded, ultimately leading the technical staff to replace him with Knighton. Seitz dealt with lofty expectations that were probably unfair given his lack of playing time behind Nick Rimando in Salt Lake, and in the end he didn’t progress fast enough to save his starting spot.
“It’s important to understand those two guys (Seitz and Knighton) needed the kind of year we just had, where there’s a lot of ups and downs, and there’s just pure experience they had to gather,” Coach John Hackworth said in a recent interview on KYW's Philly Soccer Show podcast. “For them to be as good as they can be, there’s no other way around it. Chris Seitz obviously took a large amount of criticism for his play -- there were some times when he made mistakes -- but a lot of it wasn’t his fault. Our defense in front of him wasn’t as good as it needed to be, just pure bad luck with some calls that didn’t go our way - all kinds of circumstances.”
Seitz’s numbers -- 5-12-6 record, 1.8 GAA and 0.596 save percentage -- were no doubt impacted by the defense’s struggles early in the season, but it’s hard to argue that Knighton wasn’t an improvement. After all, Knighton’s numbers -- 3-3-1 reocrd, 1.1 GAA and .697 save percentage -- were all markedly superior. Seitz’s struggles initiated the switch in net, but the decision to insert Knighton was made easier by the technical staff’s confidence in the former Revolution netminder.
LISTEN: Full interview with Hackworth
“In the end it wasn’t that difficult because Brad earned the right to be in goal,” Hackworth said. “Anytime you’re trying to establish the right environment in training you want there to be good competition - and that’s what we had with the goalkeepers. We also felt like, at the time, Chris was under a lot of pressure and it might’ve been in his best interest to take the pressure off him a little bit.
“That happened, Brad came in, did very well, and it allowed Chris to go back and work hard in training - and he fought really hard at the end. We started him in the last game because he deserved the opportunity to be back on the field. We have some good prospects next year with two goalkeepers who we feel really good about. I think it’s going to be a great battle between those two guys to see who wins the starting job through preseason.”
A couple of months stand between the Union and the 2011 preseason, though, and there are no guarantees that the current situation won't be altered. A two-team expansion draft will take place in just over a week, and Philadelphia’s protection strategy remains to be seen. So too do the selection strategies of Vancouver and Portland, not to mention the potential for the Union to acquire another goalkeeper in the offseason. In fact, Hackworth hinted that picking up a veteran 'keeper may very well be in the cards.
“Yes, there is,” he said when asked whether a veteran might be brought in to compete for the starting job. “A lot of stuff can happen in the next couple of weeks and months with trades, different contract options and renewals, and that’s something we’re working really hard on right now.
“If it’s a perfect scenario, and we had Brad and Chris come back, and we had veteran guy fighting - that’s not a bad thing either. For us though, we really feel good about the two goalkeepers we have. … Whoever it is in goal has to really come in and establish themselves and be good from the beginning.”
Knighton figures to be the favorite to retain the starting spot given his successful stint at the end of the season, but the job appears to be up for grabs again heading into 2011. As Hackworth mentioned, the most important thing is for someone to seize the opportunity and run with it.
The Union’s fate in year two could depend on it.