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When your biggest strength becomes a weakness

A reflection on Andre Blake’s 2019 season

MLS: MLS Cup Playoffs-Semifinals-Philadelphia Union at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When a team has moderate success, it’s almost easier to pick out their true flaws than compared to when they are playing very poorly. You could have had endless debates about the things the Union needed to change heading into this season, but after seeing the team play some great soccer this year, you start to truly see the team’s weaknesses. Surprising to probably everyone is that one of the biggest weaknesses the team had this season was the play of their All-Star goalkeeper Andre Blake.

While everyone can point to his terrible performance against the Red Bulls in the playoffs, I think his performance for basically the entire year was disappointing. There were some of Blake’s trademark quick reaction saves (mostly caused by poor positioning to begin with), but beyond that, Blake had the worst season of his professional career. He did deal with a groin injury part of the way into the season, and who knows if that may have bothered him further into the year, but he had career worsts in save percentage (59.4%) and in goals against average (1.58). It’s not super fair to compare Blake’s full season stats to Matt Freese’s 5 starts, but the academy product and youth national team keeper bested both of Blake’s numbers significantly.

To put Blake’s stats this season in context of the entire league, he was the 13th ranked goalkeeper in goals against average, and not even ranked in the top 20 in the league for save percentage. Add those two together, and I think you can say that Blake may have been the weakest part of the starting 11 this year.

There are obviously multiple factors contributing to why the Union were unable to keep clean sheets, but Andre Blake’s subpar play is definitely one of them. For this team to compete with the top teams in the league, consistent goalkeeper play is a must.

Barring Raymon Gaddis, the backline for the Union is quite young. With youth, it’s generally proven that having an experienced veteran leader is beneficial to their growth. I think Aurelien Collin was that veteran leader for the center backs, but I think Blake should really be that leader on the field going forward. While he’s not very outspoken, he still should demonstrate command over a youthful defensive unit, but I can’t say I’ve seen him communicate with his teammates in the ways the historically great goalkeepers usually do.

I recently went to rural Jamaica for Pro Bono physical therapy work, and while I was there, I was curious to see what locals thought of their national team goalkeeper and captain. Most of the youth I met thought he was great, but one person really gave me an interesting perspective. This man was a former FIFA referee who was forced to retire due to a vehicular accident. He told me that he thought Andre Blake should really be a better leader for his teammates, and that as long as he’s captain, he needs to do more. He really wanted to see him be more outspoken in the locker room and on the field. While I think those criticisms may be a tad unfair, I also think Blake isn’t ever going to be that outspoken guy. There is value in quiet leadership, and Blake is obviously a great example of a true professional.

Personally, I think Blake will have a bounce back year next season, but if not, Matt Freese should be ready to take the reigns. A team is only as good as its weakest link and the Union can’t really afford another year in net from Blake like this season if they have high ambitions. The good news is I’m confident that one of either Blake or Freese will be able to take them a step further next season.