As we saw last postseason with Orange County SC’s Patrick Rakovsky, the last line of defense can be a deciding factor in whether a side achieves the success it seeks over the course of a season or comes up short.
The German goalkeeper – who earns his place in this list after his late-season heroics for the defending title holders – was also an example of the quality of goalkeeping that can now be found consistently around the USL Championship. Thanks to advanced metrics offered by Opta and American Soccer Analysis – including the key metric of Goals Conceded minus Expected Goals Against (G-xG) – the way we evaluate goalkeepers has evolved to give us an even better understanding of which players are overachieving or underachieving compared to the rest of the competition.
From players who have built their reputations in the league to others arriving from overseas, here are 10 goalkeepers whose resumes and overall numbers have put them among the best in the league going into the new campaign this Saturday.
A newcomer to the USL Championship this season, Cristian Bonilla arrives at San Antonio FC having been part of teams that have competed at the highest level of club and international soccer, but arguably looking to establish himself as a player that can live up to his pedigree. The 28-year-old competed for Colombia at every level in the youth ranks up to the U-23 Olympic team and was selected for the 2015 CONMEBOL Copa América and 2016 Copa América Centenario for the senior squad as the third-string goalkeeper. He was also part of the Atletico Nacional side that won the CONMEBOL Libertadores in 2016 to reach the FIFA Club World Cup but was also a back-up in those squads. With 38 shutouts in 129 appearances, Bonilla has seen his fair share of action in his career. With San Antonio taking aim at going one better than its march to the Western Conference Final last season, Bonilla should be a key piece in that endeavor.
A former NCAA College Cup winner at the University of Virginia, Jeff Caldwell has been impressive in his two prior stops in the USL Championship. On loan at Memphis 901 FC in the 2019 season, Caldwell notched six shutouts in 28 appearances and 80 saves for the first-year club. Then a season ago finished second in the Championship with 108 saves for Hartford Athletic while recording nine shutouts. If by traditional numbers, Caldwell’s goals-against average hasn’t been great – his combined GAA over 58 regular-season appearances is 1.49 – that has been a function of the team, rather than Caldwell himself. In fact, according to Opta, in both of his seasons in the league he’s been a net positive in his underlying numbers, posting a -2.7 G-xG mark for Memphis and a -6.37 G-xG mark for Hartford as he recorded a Championship single season record five penalty kick saves on nine attempts faced for Athletic. With Colorado Springs looking for an upgrade at goalkeeper this season, they certainly should have one in the 26-year-old standout.
2020 USL Championship Goalkeeper of the Year Ben Lundt joins Phoenix Rising FC this season looking to build on a sterling history in the league. | Photo courtesy Ashley Orellana / Phoenix Rising FC
Despite FC Cincinnati’s struggles over its first three seasons in Major League Soccer – inaugural game starter Przemyslaw Tyton had a staggering +16.08 G-xG mark over 4,091 minutes at the club, and it didn’t get much better elsewhere – Ben Lundt’s name was never called to offer a potential solution. That may prove to be Phoenix Rising FC’s gain this year, with the 2020 USL Championship Goalkeeper of the Year having been a net positive in all three of his prior seasons in the league at both Louisville City FC and Phoenix, where he split time last year with fellow loanee Andre Rawls before being recalled midway through the season. Rawls posted big numbers for Rising FC, too, giving Lundt a high standard to live up to, but the 6-foot-6 German is more than capable of achieving that. His cumulative 0.89 goals-against average and 71.9 save percentage in the league are both stellar, as are his underlying numbers which have seen Lundt post a -9.13 G-xG mark over 36 regular-season appearances according to Opta. If that level of play is sustained, Rising FC has an ace between the sticks for its title drive.
With club legend Logan Ketterer departing after three seasons to Major League Soccer’ Club de Foot Montréal, El Paso Locomotive FC went in search of a replacement that would adequately replace him. In the USL Championship’s all-time shutouts and saves leader Evan Newton, arriving on loan from Vancouver Whitecaps FC, they should have their man. Newton has recorded 50 regular season shutouts and 478 saves in 155 appearances in the league, won the Golden Glove in 2018 with a 0.80 goals-against average while notching a 77.8 save percentage, and has been overall a plus-player in his underlying numbers since the USL Championship partnered with Opta before the 2017 season. Those credentials should ensure little drop-off in performance for El Paso in goal this season as the club enters its new era under Head Coach John Hutchinson this campaign.
It took two seasons as a back-up in the USL Championship for Kyle Morton to get his first opportunity as a starter in 2019 at Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, but once that chance arrived the quality the 27-year-old brings has been on full display. As the new start for Louisville City FC this season, Morton has twice previously been nominated for the Championship’s Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2019 and 2020 and continued to impress during a brief loan stint at Memphis 901 FC last season after signing with Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo FC for the 2021 campaign. In 43 appearances overall in the past three years the Pennsylvania native has recorded 123 saves with a save percentage of 73.2 percent and a G-xG mark of -11.31, which should provide a substantial upgrade to LouCity in goal over the course of this season after a campaign in which the club posted the lowest expected goals mark in the league but tied for seventh-fewest goals conceded in the regular season.
Orange County SC's Patrick Rakovsky posted eight shutouts in his final 16 appearances as Orange County SC claimed its first USL Championship title in 2021. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
If Ronaldo Damus was the attacking hero for Orange County SC in claiming the 2021 USL Championship title, then the defensive play of Patrick Rakovsky was equally as deserving of being honored. From helping his side to a pair of penalty shootout victories in the postseason to a decisive early penalty stop in the Championship Final against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the 28-year-old came up with key saves throughout the run to the first silverware in OCSC’s history. Rakovsky’s postseason performances built on those he’d put in since being installed as the full-time starter midway through August after splitting time with Abraham Romero during the first half of the season. In 16 appearances across the regular season and playoffs starting on August 22, the German recorded eight shutouts, had a save percentage of 81.8 percent and posted a G-xG mark of -8.61. After setting the bar that high, Rakovsky will be hoping to come close to more of the same this season.
Joining Miami FC before the past campaign, Connor Sparrow put in solid work in his first season at the club with a career-high 97 saves and five shutouts in 31 regular-season appearances. Sparrow’s underlying numbers proved above average, posting a -1.97 G-xG mark according to Opta, but the hope for both the player and the club this season will be that Sparrow can recapture the heights he found while back-stopping Real Monarch SLC over two seasons earlier in his career. Part of the 2017 Monarchs side that posted the best record in the Championship’s regular season, Sparrow recorded 11 shutouts in 27 appearances while posting a 0.85 goals-against average and an 80.5 save percentage on 95 total saves. Entering what should be his prime years at 27 years old, Sparrow could have a major impact on Miami’s trajectory this campaign.
New Mexico United goalkeeper Alex Tambakis ranks third in the USL Championship's history with 402 saves in the regular season during his career. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
Over the past four seasons, there hasn’t been a busier goalkeeper in the USL Championship than Alex Tambakis, whose 309 regular-season saves are 51 more than his closest counterpart in the league in that span. The volume of shots the Greek goalkeeper has faced has been in large part a function of the team’s he played for, but there’s also been a question of inconsistency at times for Tambakis himself; when competing for North Carolina FC in 2018 he recorded a career-high 95 saves, but also allowed 49 goals, far above the expected goals mark NCFC allowed in his starts that campaign. There have been better years, too, including last season at New Mexico United when he was a plus in a disappointing season that saw United miss the postseason for the first time in its short history despite conceding only 37 goals in his 31 appearances, tied for seventh-fewest in the league. Should Tambakis maintain that consistency this season, he will move into second place all-time in the Championship’s regular season in saves and could help United achieve a far more successful season.
Reaching 35 years of age during September last season, Matt VanOekel was the oldest goalkeeper in the USL Championship a season ago. You wouldn’t be able to tell from his performance, though, as the Birmingham Legion FC shot-stopper posted one of the best single seasons over the Championship’s past five seasons to help Birmingham vie for the Central Division title against Louisville City FC. VanOekel’s -7.26 G-xG mark was the third-lowest in the Championship since the start of the 2017 season, surpassed by only then-Sacramento Republic FC goalkeeper Josh Cohen in 2018 (-10.15) and then-Real Monarchs SLC goalkeeper Connor Sparrow in 2017 (-9.38). VanOekel’s play saw him earn Championship All-League Second Team honors for a career year he’ll be hoping to build on in the new campaign.
Since the departure of Josh Cohen midway through the 2019 season – transferred to Israeli Premier League side Maccabi Haifa, where last year he won the league’s Player of the Year award – Sacramento Republic FC hasn’t quite found the top-level replacement it had hoped to. The hope for the 2014 title winners is the arrival of 2020 Championship Golden Glove winner Danny Vitiello is that solution, with the former Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC goalkeeper having put up solid numbers for the Hounds since establishing himself as the starter midway through the 2020 season. Vitiello has recorded a save percentage of 72.7 percent on 81 saves over 35 starts as well as 14 shutouts, while his cumulative G-xG mark sits at -4.69 according to Opta. A full season with that level of play in goal should provide a major boost to a Republic FC side that has reloaded its squad in anticipation of a serious title challenge.
Tag(s): Features San Antonio FC CO Spring Switchbacks Orange County SC Phoenix Rising FC Sacramento Republic FC Louisville City FC Evan Newton Connor Sparrow Kyle Morton Alexander Tambakis Matt Van Oekel Birmingham Legion FC El Paso Locomotive FC New Mexico United Daniel Vitiello Jeff Caldwell Ben Lundt The Miami FC Patrick Rokovsky