GUARDIANS OF THE SOCCER FIELD
Ever wonder what goes through the mind of a goalkeeper? Two MLS goalies share their secrets, from penalty kicks to off-the-field preparation
Standing as the last line of defense isolated between two white standing poles is the goalkeeper. They have the ability to preserve equality, to control a match with his hands inside a chalked box, making him different from other players.
Some move outside of the box in a sweeper keeper position, but they all stand in front of a cage, like a chained guard dog ready to pounce on a stray ball that runs too far. They jump high in the air, violently punching and swatting soccer balls over and away from the net. They are saviors.
As a viewer, we are given the chance to judge goalkeepers instincts. We either approve or disapprove their every move. However little is known of the decisions they make, such as when is the right time to come off their line or how to approach a penalty kick. Do they stride to either side on first impulse or does the goalkeeper play mind tricks with the penalty taker? Each goalkeeper's style of play explains his or her different ways. Some are risk takers while others are more patient.
Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath explained himself as the latter.
"I consider myself more of a smart goalkeeper," MacMath said during a phone interview. "[I'm] just really good at positioning and shot stopping."
The former fifth-overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft explained how he is not one of the most athletic goalkeepers in the MLS. To combat his lack of athleticism, MacMath said he uses his mind and footwork to make saves.
Similar to MacMath, Tally Hall, a veteran goalkeeper for the Houston Dynamo, takes a similar approach.
"I try to make goalkeeping as simple as possible when the going gets tough," Hall said. "I take the simplest approach for everything. All the saves I'm proud of are simple."
The 29-year-old, who has been with Houston since 2009 has appeared in 106 games, currently has 62 saves as of August 10, 2014.
Hall said the tendency for goalies is when the game is closer they tend to give. By that, he means there is a larger opportunity for the opposition to capitalize because of a mental lapse from the keeper. Hall stressed the importance to not give up during the run of play because anything can happen, since goalkeepers control the game when the ball approaches the lower third of the field.
When a goalie comes off his line, sometimes they drive with force. Other times, they may look sheepish or hesitant. But once they decide, they have one goal: to divert the ball away from the net.
"I'm a bigger keeper," Hall said. "I give myself as much time as possible. Some keepers step out quicker, but I'm try to get as close as possible. I try to use my body."
Hall credited his unconventional style of play to his ability to get in front of the ball. He spoke about how he's made saves with his head and stomach, anything to block the ball away from the net. While these shots may cause some acrobats, the hardest shot Tally Hall believes is when it is struck low and hard.
"You're standing up," Hall said. "You have to get down and you can't jump down. You have to get sideways; it's not a natural way. You have to push low and hard to block these shots."
Whether it is a low line drive or a chip where a keeper gets their finger tips on, one of the most important aspects of goalkeeping is how to approach penalty kicks.
For MacMath, his game has improved because of match preparation, which shows in his increased save percentage on penalty kicks. Prior to 2014, MacMath had stopped only one penalty shot in six attempts. But so far in the 2014 campaign, he has a 60 percent save percentage, saving three out of five shots currently making him third best in the MLS. He credits his success through watching video of his opponents.
He added that he relies on film and match preparation to make up for his lack of ability. The 22-year-old said he watches four to five penalty kicks before each game, which he believes gives him an advantage
"I like to get a tendency on where they like to go," MacMath explained. "Some guys obviously like to go to the same side every single time. But once I know where they might be going, I just try to get a report during the game."
On television, sometimes it looks like the goalie has decided where he will dive before the ball is kicked. But MacMath said he likes to wait until the last second. Once he has the scouting report, he will juke his opponent by baiting them into shooting the ball their preferred way. Leaning one way and diving the opposite, MacMath reels in his opponent like a fisherman. He waits until the last second to reel in the shot.
While MacMath believes game footage helps in preparation, Tally Hall sees it differently.
"I try to look at game tape, but all strikers know that exists," Hall said. "Looking at the footage can be helpful because maybe there is a sell, but most times there's not."
Whether or not game footage benefits the goalkeeper, these moments of study mostly happen off the field, where they study and better themselves. Their off-the-field preparation is important and sometimes it's beyond the soccer field in mind.
"The biggest thing I have gotten into within the past six months to a year has been yoga," MacMath said. "I just picked that up and used it toward my advantage to make myself more flexibly and relaxed to find that balance during games when things get a little too chaotic,
"Besides the physical aspect, the goalkeeper position is 85 percent mental. You have to make the right decisions, stay interested in the game and let go of your errors when you do make them."
MacMath stressed that yoga helps him find balance in order to maintain his focus and block everything else away. He also credited some of his in-game success to his previous trials at Everton, learning under USA international Tim Howard.
"On and off the field, he's really a true professional in the way he handles himself and how he takes care of his body," MacMath said. "Seeing first hand how someone at the top level is playing in the World Cup, like the US national team, seeing how he takes care of his body whether it be eating or resting or lifting whatever it may be, seeing his intensity and how he wants to be a perfectionist in every aspect of the game, he wants to do everything right."
MacMath said he realized how much goes into being at the top level. He credited Howard's conditioning of his body, stressing how Howard gives it his all every day of the year, never taking a day off.
For Tally Hall, he does not do yoga, although he said it is one of those exercises he wishes he had time to pick up. He works on his game and instincts in training, explaining how coaches drill low shots at him and make him perform simple dives. He explained how his campers consider him the most boring goalkeeper in the MLS because his style is basic. But after training, Hall likes to dedicate thirty to thirty five minutes in the gym to work on strength and conditioning.
While some might find Hall's game boring, he offered these words of encouragement to how he approaches his off the field training: "There are no advanced techniques, only basic techniques with advantage application."
Mentally and physically grueling, the goalkeeper continues to impress us in ways that we did not think were possible. Bending like blades of grass or soaring like a comet, the goalkeeper defies natures. They act like field generals when the midfielders fail to. They guide their teammates to the right position. When a mistake happens, they have to regain their focus, to forget seconds before and focus on the seconds after.
Some could say goalkeepers are the guardians of the soccer field.