During last year’s winter roster-building period leading up to Minnesota United’s inaugural MLS campaign, this website ran a story speculating that the team was planning on using a formation that didn’t require a goalkeeper. While the story was satirical, it underscored the fact that the front office left the goalkeeper position vacant for longer than felt comfortable in the eyes of serious fans.
The need for a goalkeeper was also the topic of many a angst-filled Reddit post during the #Panic era, and led to desperate speculation about which already-signed field player could keep goal in the event that the Loons never got around to signing a real one. Most people tipped their hat to big Joe Greenspan in the event that it came down to throwing a field player between the sticks.
How we got here
The riddle of the goalkeeper looked like it might be solved early, when December’s expansion draft came around and the Loons landed Jeff Atinella. Atinella, who backed up Nick Rimando at Real Salt Lake, was widely considered one of the top backups in the league. Atinella, however, turned out to be nothing more than Miguel Ibarra trade bait. It was when Atinella was traded to Portland for Ibarra’s discovery rights that the goalie panic really got into full swing.
The MNUFC front office was of course cognizant of the fact that goalkeepers exist and are necessary, and they even had some irons in the fire. Interestingly, rather than relying on trade or free agency to pick up a serviceable domestic goalie, the team seemed bent on pricier Scandinavian talent. Early reports linked the club to the Norwegian-based Ghanaian international Adam Kwarasey. The Loons, however, sprinted from that potential deal when Kwarasey came up with a back injury, and eventually settled on Swedish veteran John Alvbage as a consolation prize just as preseason got underway.
Oh, and in what looked like an afterthought – a last minute grasp for a bit of depth as preseason wound to a close – Minnesota traded forward Femi Holinger-Janzen to his original club New England for a veteran goalkeeper who had lost his starting position named Bobby Shuttleworth. Bobby Shuttleworth – remember that name; he becomes important in this story.
On field performance
While there were no memorable goalkeeper howlers to punctuate the team’s early defensive woes, Alvbage did not overly impress once the season got rolling. He gave up five goals in the debut at Portland, then five more when the Loons got torched by Atlanta in the home opener before he left the field with a gash in his knee. Shuttleworth replaced the injured Swede in the waning minutes, and promptly gave up another goal to give Atlanta a nice round number for their first blowout win.
That Shuttleworth guy, however, began to grow on everyone after that inauspicious debut. He backstopped the team’s first point in a road tie at Colorado, then made a crucial save early in the home game against Real Salt Lake – a game which turned into the club’s first MLS victory – and the rest is history.
Shuttleworth’s contributions to the team’s inaugural MLS campaign were unmistakable. He saved penalty kicks (see Montreal Impact and FC Dallas), broke his nose and refused to leave the game (see Sporting Kansas City), wore a scary mask that only endeared him to the fan base (see most of May), and was up for save of the week on more than one occasion.
Minnesota took a flyer on the 30-year old Shuttleworth, and he had the renaissance kind of season that down-on-their-luck veterans dream of. His distribution wasn’t anything to write home about, but his shot stopping ability and general presence was undoubtedly a bright spot for the team. In the end, he was one of three MNUFC players nominated for league MVP.
What we can expect going forward
It goes without saying that Shuttleworth will begin 2018 as the team’s starting keeper. Given his performance in 2017 and the team’s hunger for offensive difference makers, it is pretty safe to say that MNUFC will not be investing heavily at the goalie position over the winter.
While it’s nice to know we’ve got a starting keeper in the bank, however, depth at this position remains a monumental question mark. Once Alvbage was stretchered off against Atlanta, Shuttleworth played every single league play minute remaining in the season – except the second half at Houston in April when Alvbage filled in to help preserve a valuable road tie.
When Alvbage’s loan ran out in July, Patrick McLain was promoted to second string, and the Loons signed former Creighton standout Alex Kapp as the third stringer. McLain is not exactly an ideal back up keeper; the journeyman who was tacked on to the very expensive Kevin Molino deal from Orlando, has two MLS starts and three appearances to his name. At 29 he’s not young enough to be a true understudy, and we know more about his tattoos than we do about his shot stopping ability.
Kapp, meanwhile, is also an unknown quantity. He has some impressive highlight reels from his days at Creighton, and at 23 has room to grow, but there is nothing about him that necessarily jumps off the page. He was drafted 68th overall in the 2017 SuperDraft by Atlanta but was never signed by the club.
So while goalkeeper is a position Loons fans have grown used to not worrying about in a season that gave them plenty to worry about, the team is one Shuttleworth knock away from choosing between two under-qualified candidates to backstop the defense when the calendar ticks over and MNUFC attempts to build on its 10-win inaugural MLS campaign. I think it’s safe to say that we can go ahead and start worrying now about keeper depth for Minnesota’s second season in the big leagues.
Should MNUFC sign another slightly more proven keeper to back up Shuttleworth, or should they roll the dice and assume Bobby will have another relatively injury-free year, and or one of his backups defies the numbers by rising to the occasion? What do you think?
Next installment: fullback.