Blake silences critics, towers over MLS Is Back Tournament


Curiously, Andre Blake often appears to move in slow motion off the soccer field, like an astronaut traversing a crater of the moon decorated with immediately forgettable hotel artwork. His long, thin legs set a languid pace for teammates and staff members as he alternatingly teases, teaches, and tumbles into sudden peals of laughter.

This is the second curiosity of Blake: His composed, careful persona with media can seem like a slow motion version of a real personality. How can this calm confidence remain ever-present? How can one man know so many clichés and, perhaps more impressively, deliver them in a way that both suggests he believes in them as both simple truths and, simultaneously, harmless fibs told to fulfill an obligation?

Is he aloof? Smug? Simply a consummate professional acting the same role for the can’t-even-count-how-many time? What is it about Andre Blake that, after his most difficult season as a pro, has his head coach and entire defense still calling him the best goalie in MLS? Has his teammates gleefully calling him The Sheriff and both the veteran and nascent professional goalie on the roster convinced he’s a special talent?

Respected, inclusive, and always on the verge of a smile – until the whistle blows, that is –For those he trusts Andre Blake is a presence. The confidence that quietly slips away from a team out of sorts or overmatched is pumped back into the Union’s young, hungry team by their last line of defense.

And if there was doubt after 2019, it is gone. The Sheriff’s got his swagger back.

Kai, tight, no space! Miro! Miro, don’t let them out! Late Ray! Late runner, Ray!

Blake can bail his team out with reflexes that are less mind-blowing than they are comforting, like waking up and finding the milk and cookies gone on Christmas morning. I knew Santa was real before, but now I really know Santa is real.

Those reflexes, though, draw the spotlight away from Blake’s most important attribute: His communication. On the empty fields of the ESPN Wide World of Sports, his urgent voice rolls over others, shifting El Brujo Martinez two steps to his right then alerting Mark McKenzie to a carefully shaped run in behind.

After a match to forget in the playoffs against New York Red Bulls in 2019 and getting beaten to the spot by Julian Gressel for the opening goal against Atlanta, Blake’s place among the league’s elite was openly questioned. If he was no longer the shot-stopper he had been, was there still a place for him in a system that demands a goalie use his feet and control the barren, dangerous space behind a high defensive line? Five goals against in the first two matches of the 2020 season made those questions more persistent.

In 7v7 games on a tight pitch ahead of the Union’s first MLS Is Back Tournament match against heavily favored NYCFC, players battle for the yard of space needed to rip off a shot at full-sized goals. An opening for young Jack de Vries in the left channel – the shot hit with ferocious force toward the far corner before Blake rotates his body 90 degrees like an action hero spinning the wheel for an impossible turn during a car chase. He tips the ball around the post and slowly rises, first to one knee as he looks out at his teammates, then back to his feet, clapping and pushing Olivier Mbaizo to get tighter to his man. This is Blake’s signature moment. From hyperspeed back to moonwalker, staring out at his teammates with a look that says, You know I can, stop making me prove it.

He smothered NYC’s high-powered, high-priced attack. Miami needed a series of lucky bounces to put the ball behind him, and Orlando thought they had him beat multiple times before Mauricio Pereyra finally found a way past the Union.

Valentin Castellanos, then Adam Morgan and countless more all made the same face: How did that… how did he...

And Blake, rising with practiced deliberateness, heedless of his opponent and focused on teammates: You know I can, stop making me prove it.

In the Round of 16 against New England the iconic image was Sergio Santos, all scarely-contained power and energy, thoughtfully dispatching his goal past a stranded Matt Turner. But behind the flashing lights and party atmosphere that Santos summons through sheer force of personality was Blake, slowly rising after another in a series of frustratingly efficient stops. Adam Buksa, head in hands, peeled away late in the match, in no less disbelief than a man in a desert as he realizes an oasis was nothing more than a mirage.

After each stunning performance, Blake remained the same off the pitch. Studied and slightly distant to the media but engaging and brotherly to teammates.

Finally, after a thrilling 3-1 win over Sporting Kansas City that reminded all how focused Union team can take down anyone in Major League Soccer, Blake turned to the camera and smiled, “That one’s for you, Philly,” he said, exhausted and proud in equal measure. El Brujo Martinez, another emerging star of the tournament, ran up to his goalie, the embodiment of the team’s unshakeable self-belief, and let out a howl.

After all, words can get in the way. Sometimes a howl says it all. Other times, just a look.

You know I can. And I just proved it.

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