Long-distance goals are an ever-present danger in soccer. Sounders goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra said the way keepers prevent such goals is by knowing their opponents, recognizing the danger of long balls coming over the top and keeping their footwork coordinated.
Allowing a goal from midfield ranks among the worst nightmares for soccer keepers at any level.
So, when New York City FC captain David Villa scored from midfield last weekend on Philadelphia Union keeper Andre Blake, it got noticed worldwide. But as bad — or good — as Villa’s unofficially-measured 53½-yard chip looked as it arched over Blake’s outstretched arms, long-distance goals actually are an ever-present danger.
“You’re just always adjusting your position in relation to where the ball is at,” Sounders goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra said. “But when a guy does turn and face your goal — a guy like Villa — even at the halfway line, you’d better watch yourself.”
Clint Dempsey nearly got a long-distance strike past Whitecaps keeper David Ousted from about 40 yards out last week. Dempsey’s shot arched over Ousted as he backpedaled frantically and wound up clanging off the crossbar and out of harm’s way.
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Dutra said the way keepers prevent such goals is by knowing their opponents, recognizing the danger of long balls coming over the top and keeping their footwork coordinated.
“You develop the skill to make that kind of save,” he said. “You don’t have a drill per se, where if you’re 20 yards off of the goal line or 25, where you’re working on it throughout the week. It’s footwork.”
Dutra does a pregame drill with Sounders keeper Stefan Frei in which they work on a “crossover step” for balls hit over the top. The step helps a keeper quickly shift direction much like a defensive back in football that adjusts on a dime to balls thrown his way.
And hard as they work, no keeper is perfect. Dutra remembers allowing a midfield goal on a chipped ball during his USISL A-League days in the late 1990s.
Frei actually got beaten for a 40-yard goal under different circumstances by Whitecaps midfielder Gershon Koffie in May 2014. He’d raced about 25 yards to the far corner after a loose ball and then cleared it back toward midfield.
Koffie trapped the ball off his chest and lobbed a shot back toward the open goal before Frei could recover. Frei, who had been trying to prevent a corner kick, admits now he should have just booted the ball out of bounds for a throw-in to give himself a chance to reset his positioning.
Despite the huge difference between that and Villa’s strike last weekend, Frei said it boils down to split-second decision-making. Whenever a keeper leaves the box, he must prepare for the unexpected. Playing the through balls intended for sprinting strikers who try to race under them can be especially difficult.
“You always have to be on your front foot whenever you play through balls behind your line so you can come out right away,’’ he said.
On through balls along the ground, he added, a keeper often needs to make the decision to leave the box even before the ball initially overtakes its eventual intended striker target.
“So, it’s a matter of point-something seconds,’’ Frei said. “You pick up whether that ball is going to outpace the striker it’s intended for or not. Because the flip side is you come for it and the guy gets to it first and then you wind up in no-man’s land where he dribbles around you, or you take a foul or get a red card.”
But the danger of always staying on the front foot, Frei added, is keepers getting caught unable to backpedal in time when a talented player suddenly chips a long shot over their heads. To avoid that, he studies film and keeps a mental log of players that might attempt a long-distance goal.
“You kind of know who on the opponent’s team will have the audacity, or the skill to try something like that,” Frei said.