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11 Goalkeepers to Watch in the 2024 USL Championship season

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 02/16/24, 9:40AM EST


Familiar faces in new places, and a collection of last season’s standouts could be key in the new campaign

As the last line of defense, a club’s goalkeeper can be one of the major differentiators as to a club’s success in the regular season or postseason, whatever league you watch.

That was evident in the past USL Championship campaign, with the likes of Louisville City FC’s Oliver Semmle and the Charleston Battery’s Trey Muse playing key roles for their sides before Phoenix Rising FC’s Rocco Rios Novo stole the show in the 2023 USL Championship Final.

Both Semmle (Philadelphia Union) and Muse (Portland Timbers FC) are now in Major League Soccer after offseason transfers, but as the level of play in the league continues to rise so does the standard of the Championship’s goalkeeping.

Here are 11 shot-stoppers that you should have your eye on as this year unfolds.

Paul Blanchette, Oakland Roots SC

Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing / Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC

For the first time since joining the USL Championship in 2021, Oakland Roots SC missed the postseason in the past campaign. That occurred despite the best efforts of goalkeeper Paul Blanchette, who individually was outstanding. The Palo Alto, Calif. native led the league in saves in the regular season with 114 while also recording nine shutouts and a -4.57 Goals Prevented mark to earn Championship All-League Second Team honors.

While Blanchette’s save total was an individual season-high – and tied for the seventh-highest total in the Championship’s regular season history – his overall performance was nothing we hadn’t seen before. In three seasons in Oakland, Blanchette has posted a cumulative save percentage of 71.6 percent and a -13.42 Goals Prevented mark. The nickname Paul the Wall is apt, and the recognition he earned last season deserved. If he maintains that standard, it will go a long way toward driving Oakland back into postseason contention this season.

Tyler Deric, Memphis 901 FC

Bill Hamid’s stint with the club aside, Memphis 901 FC’s goalkeeping wasn’t a strong point for the club in 2023. Playing the majority of the club’s minutes, Drew Romig posted a 1.68 goals-against average and a save percentage of 52.6 percent, and late season arrival Richard Sanchez didn’t fare much better.

With a completely new goalkeeper room this season, Memphis is looking to veteran Tyler Deric to shore up the club’s performance in net. Arriving from Rio Grande Valley FC, the 35-year-old is coming off a season where he proved solid if not spectacular for the Toros with a 66.8 save percentage on 76 saves as well as eight shutouts and a -0.55 Goals Prevented mark. As 901 FC rebuilds its lineup after some key offseason departures, a similar campaign from Deric with his new club would set a baseline for Memphis to build around.

Jordan Farr, Tampa Bay Rowdies

This offseason has seen some eye-opening transfers within the USL Championship, and the move of Jordan Farr to the Tampa Bay Rowdies only a year removed from winning the Championship’s Goalkeeper of the Year award and the league title at San Antonio FC was maybe at the top of the list.

Farr’s overall numbers in San Antonio in 2023 weren’t far off the prior campaign, but the number that stood out most – and resulted in SAFC acquiring Nick Marsman for the final stretch of the season – were a league-high four errors that led to goals. With the Rowdies in the market for a new goalkeeper after Connor Sparrow’s departure, Farr’s availability proved a fit for Tampa Bay, who will be hoping the 29-year-old will rebound. If there’s reason for optimism, Rowdies fans need only look across the country to Danny Vitiello, who logged four errors that led to goals in 2022. Last year, Vitiello dropped that number to zero as he claimed Goalkeeper of the Year honors, which shows how quickly those sorts of fortunes can change in a year.

Adam Grinwis, Charleston Battery

The path of Adam Grinwis’ career has been a curious one. When he’s played in the USL Championship, he’s been a solid producer, posting a career save percentage of 72.1 percent and logging 12 shutouts in 42 regular season appearances. He saw action for the Rochester Rhinos as a rookie in 2015 when the side won the league, and has been a well-regarded back-up in Major League Soccer, most recently for Orlando City SC.

At the same time, at 31 years old he has only made 61 senior appearances during his career across league and cup competitions. Last season, he didn’t appear at all for OCSC as young homegrown Mason Stajduhar assumed the primary back-up position for the Lions. That’s likely not a concern for new club the Charleston Battery, for whom Grinwis serves as the replacement for the departed Trey Muse, transferred to Portland Timbers FC in one of the club’s notable outgoing moves. There will be an early spotlight to see how Grinwis handles returning to regular action, however, as he looks to complement a side that has more silverware in its sights this season.

Rocco Ríos Novo, Phoenix Rising FC

Photo courtesy Henry Taylor / Charleston Battery

As an Argentine youth international, there was little question about the pedigree of Rocco Ríos Novo. In 2023, however, everything came together for the young goalkeeper as he lived up to his promise in leading Phoenix Rising FC to its first USL Championship title. Ríos Novo posted a save percentage of 73.1 percent across the regular season and playoffs, a Goals Prevented mark of -6.58, and came up with two crucial saves in the penalty shootout of the 2023 USL Championship Final to earn MVP honors.

That standard of performance saw the 21-year-old earn his first call-up to the national team program since being part of the U-17s in 2019, claiming a spot in Head Coach Javier Mascherano’s squad as the side advanced from CONMEBOL Olympic Qualifying tournament. As Ríos Novo returns to Phoenix again on loan from Lanus this season, the goal of earning a place in the squad for the Paris 2024 Olympics will be present. If he can emulate his performances of a season ago, it could provide the platform for even bigger things to come.

Pablo Sisniega, San Antonio FC

Imagine being Pablo Sisniega, who is tasked with replacing one of the most beloved players among San Antonio FC fans this season after the transfer of Jordan Farr to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Fan reaction to the departure of Farr on social media wasn’t happy, and that will put a big spotlight on the 28-year-old as he arrives from Charlotte FC, particularly with San Antonio set to visit Tampa Bay on the second weekend of the season.

That said, this may be exactly the opportunity the native of Mexico City has been waiting for. Having come through Real Sociedad’s academy in Spain before turning pro with the club’s reserve team in 2014, Sisniega has been part of Los Angeles FC and Charlotte FC over the past five years, making 31 appearances in Major League Soccer. As he enters his prime, the 6-foot-3 shot-stopper will be eager to make a good first impression for his new club as it seeks to return to the top of the Western Conference. If there are early challenges, though, the pressure will only start to rise.   

Nate Steinwascher, Detroit City FC

Photo courtesy Jon DeBoer / Detroit City FC

There are no two ways about it – if Nate Steinwascher isn’t between the sticks for Detroit City FC during the 2023 season, Le Rouge aren’t part of the playoff field. For a second consecutive season the local standout was brilliant, posting 12 shutouts across the regular season and playoffs and 94 saves with a save percentage of 71.8 percent. For a side that scored a league-fewest 30 goals in the regular season, Steinwascher was the difference-maker, and a deserved finalist for the Championship’s Goalkeeper of the Year award.

What has been remarkable about Steinwascher, though, is his ability to raise his level to meet the next challenge. From his debut in 2016 when DCFC was in the amateur ranks to the present, the 31-year-old has measured up at every level. With 186 saves and a Goals Prevented mark of -9.09 over the past two seasons, Steinwascher has quickly joined the league’s elite shot-stoppers. With a new multi-year contract agreed this offseason, it seems unlikely that’s going to change any time soon.

Alex Tambakis, New Mexico United

Alex Tambakis is among the USL Championship’s all-time leaders in numerous goalkeeping categories. He’s recorded 537 regular-season saves and 44 shutouts – ranking second in league history in both categories to Evan Newton – and has made 188 appearances. In his time at New Mexico United, he’s become a fan-favorite as well, notching 18 shutouts in 85 appearances and helping the side reach the postseason in the past two seasons.

But as high as Tambakis ranks in league history, whether he can be a difference-maker for United remains a question. In all three of his campaigns in New Mexico he’s posted a save percentage below 70 percent – averaging a 66.5 percent mark overall across the regular season and playoffs – and has a Goals Prevented mark of +8.09, a rise from his numbers at North Carolina FC. New Mexico has always had high aspirations of success, and under Head Coach Eric Quill that won’t change. The question will be whether Tambakis can raise his individual performance to help lift the team to where it aims to be. 

Koke Vegas, Rhode Island FC

Photo courtesy Rhode Island FC

A first signing in club history is typically a statement of intent. For Rhode Island FC and its announcement of Spanish goalkeeper Koke Vegas as its first player last November, that was certainly the case. The 28-year-old’s arrival after two seasons with San Diego Loyal SC in which he became a cult hero across 63 appearances and a pair of playoff berths provided a clue as to the identity that Head Coach Khano Smith wants his side to deliver on the field.

Vegas had ups and downs in San Diego, for sure. As capable as he was of spectacular stops, he also posted a cumulative 63.4 save percentage and a 1.42 goals-against average, below the Championship’s elite. At the same time, what Vegas can do with his feet feels like it’s going to be key to Rhode Island’s style – no goalkeeper attempted or completed more passes in the Championship last season, showing how comfortable the native of Antequera is in building play from the back. As he lands at a new port, there will be plenty of attention to what Vegas can bring to the expansion club.

Danny Vitiello, Sacramento Republic FC

At about this time last year, we noted that if Danny Vitiello could cut down on his individual errors – and the seven goals that had resulted in the prior two campaigns from them – then he could move into awards contention. Well, guess what? Vitiello had a banner year in 2023, claiming both the Championship’s Goalkeeper of the Year and Golden Glove awards while leading Sacramento Republic FC to a first-place finish in the Western Conference.

Vitiello’s play in the defensive third was clean as a whistle, allowing only one shot from an error all campaign. On top of that, the 27-year-old maintained his standards elsewhere, posting an individual career-best save percentage of 75.4 percent while notching 12 shutouts across the regular season and playoffs. Having signed a new multi-year contract in Sacramento, chances are Vitiello could go from strength to strength and be back in contention for individual honors and club silverware at the end of the campaign.

Jahmali Waite, El Paso Locomotive FC

The first two seasons of Jahmali Waite’s professional career have been fascinating to watch. On one hand, the 25-year-old became one of the USL Championship’s prominent shot-stoppers, parlaying his success across 50 appearances with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC to opportunities at the international level with Jamaica as Andre Blake’s understudy.

At the same time, Waite’s overall numbers have been a mixed bag. He recorded 17 shutouts in those 50 appearances but had a save percentage of 62.6 percent and a Goals Prevented mark of +7.07 on 87 saves. As one of the notable departures from Hounds after their Players’ Shield victory last season, Waite’s arrival at El Paso Locomotive FC brings him to a club that sat in the lower half of the league in shots on target faced (145) during the 2023 campaign. With the potential he’ll be a far busier man than he was in Pittsburgh, Waite will likely need to up his numbers to help keep El Paso on course.

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