In his third season as the locked-in starter between the pipes for Philadelphia Union, Andre Blake set a number of records. He set his own personal (and all-time Union club) record for saves in a season with 118. He set a personal and club record for most shutouts (10) and wins in a season (14). Blake also showed some sneaky improvements in more subtle areas of his game. The Jamaican shot stopper improved his pass completion percentage eight points from 2017 to 68%, good for 10th best among goalies with at least 1000 minutes this season. Furthermore, according to American Soccer Analysis' passing model, Blake's Expected Passing Completion Percentage leaped from 56.2% in 2017 -- sixth lowest in the league among goalies over the past three seasons -- to over 63%. Blake also showed a marked improvement in his aerial game, to the point where the glaring mistakes like the May 9 fumble that granted Columbus a 1-0 victory were far more exception than rule.
There are, however, clear areas for improvement going forward. Although the big goalie remains an elite shot-stopper, his ability to come out of his goal to read and attack through-balls was a consistent issue throughout the year. Perhaps most memorably Blake rushed out to challenge Atlanta's Miguel Almiron in July 7 when it appeared Mark McKenzie had the play covered. The resulting penalty changed the nature of that contest for good. Blake got into a similar jam at home against NYCFC when he misjudged whether he could get to a ball before Jo Inge Berget, but the Union were able to clear the chaos that followed. This issue is no small part of a goalie's game, and it's one that Blake needs to grow in a hurry if Philly wants to continue playing a high defensive line (which, of course, they do). Luckily, the Union's backstop seems to have the capacity to target areas for improvement and shore up shortcomings. From a hardcore shot-stopper, Blake has now improved his passing and his aerial game. Reading through-balls looks like the next step forward.
No analysis of Blake's season is complete, though, without an examination of the context within which he operated. And that context can most accurately be described as... a young one. Specifically, Blake, at times, behind the youngest defense in Major League Soccer history. He backstopped the debuts of a teenaged center back twice and a teenaged fullback once; only two of Blake's opening day back four held onto their starting roles for the full season, and Ray Gaddis -- the eventual starter at left back -- had to re-convert himself from a right back to a left-sided defender.
This is a lot for any goalie to handle, but it is a particularly heavy load for one that didn't arrive in MLS particularly comfortable with a leadership role. Blake had to become, quite quickly, the voice of the Union defense. He had to keep their heads up when they struggled and refocus them after success.
Blake succeeded. He helped guide an inexperienced defense with what could have been fragile confidence to the postseason, and he did it while facing the fourth most shots in the league. After his third season as a key member of Philadelphia Union’s defense, Andre Blake continued to show that he can be a difference-maker between the posts. More importantly for the Union’s future, though, he proved that he still has greater heights to climb.
With two young, dynamic center backs returning in front of him and still more room for Keegan Rosenberry to grow defensively, Blake’s continued development will be necessary if the Union want to push on from a successful 2018. Nobody doubts he can do it; but now he has to make it happen.
...Do we have to pick just one?
There was the mind-bending quickness against Dallas.
The wildly athletic recovery save against Atlanta.
The leap back across his body to stone Maxi Moralez.
And we haven’t even arrived at the save that is currently nominated for MLS Save of the Year yet. (Go vote!)
In 33 starts, Andre Blake made five or more saves nine times. He made four saves to earn a shutout four different times (at Montreal, at New York Red Bulls, at Seattle, and vs New England). Still, Blake’s top performances came in the games when he kept Philly in matches even though the rest of the squad wasn’t at their best. The goalie’s first half display against FC Dallas was, frankly, stunning. His five saves at New England helped the Union survive a wild second half and pick up an enormous three points, and then there was the seven save performance at home against Chicago that allowed the Union to escape with three points.
Quotes of the season
Former New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch after the Union defeated his team in the US Open Cup: “Yeah, we had a few chances at the beginning of the second half and if we get the lead off of those chances, it's a completely different game. Blake comes up big on some of those, he comes up big on the chance by Kaku.”
Mark McKenzie after Blake’s save on Harrison Afful at the end of the match against Columbus on September 29: “He is a big-time keeper. He comes up big for us in a lot of games. So, having a guy like that behind you gives you some reassurance and some confidence knowing that when his time does come that he is going to bail you guys out. That’s what happens in the game those times when you’re on the backfoot and you need to depend on somebody and Dre [Andre Blake] is that guy.”
Union head coach Jim Curtin on the Afful save: “Incredible save. In the pregame talk, I said we need 10 guys to win their individual battles tonight and know that we have Andre Blake behind us to balance out when we need a big save. He stepped up in a major way.”