We know his name well. We love him even. And you can't talk about anything that went right in 2015 without mentioning his name. Of course, I'm talking about Josh Saunders. In a season that was rife with defensive lapses and mind numbing turnovers in our own defensive third, Saunders stood as a beacon of light in those dark times. Often "standing on his head" as the saying goes, Saunders would make save after save effectively keeping the team in games that would've otherwise been runaway losses. His efforts did not go unnoticed either, as he was awarded a contract extension this offseason.
Having said all that, however, this preseason has seen Eirik Johansen, not Saunders, get the majority of playing time in goal. Now this could be just to rest Saunders for the season. Saunders is also a veteran, and a proven veteran at that, while Johansen is still a young developing player. You can easily take this run of playing time as to mean they are focusing on furthering his development, but not that he's being considered to start.
What became very apparent rather quickly once the preseason games started, though, is that Johansen plays a very different style at 'keeper than his teammate Josh Saunders. While Saunders has those cat-like reflexes in goal, he doesn't like to stray too far out from the six-yard area, and you'll rarely see him outside of the box at all. Johansen has been the complete opposite.
As the gif above shows, Johansen is very comfortable with coming out of the box and providing an outlet for passing. And he's also shown himself to be good with the ball at his feet and a capable distributor of the ball. Even better than Saunders. The reason this is significant is because Vieira has emphasized all preseason the style of play that he wants the team to embody: aggressive, attacking football that can play out of the back. Having a 'keeper who's willing and able to come out of the box and push the attack forward could be very tantalizing for Vieira. It's an asset Johansen has shown that separates himself from Saunders.
Saunders is definitely the safer bet when it comes to goal prevention. But Vieira also has a clear vision for how he wants the team to play, and I think that will weigh heavily on which players he's looking to make up his starting XI. And while Saunders definitely has the reflexes for the position, Johansen is also a hulk of a human standing at 6'7" and occupying a lot of space in goal (although Saunders is pretty hulking himself at 6'4"). Here are some other things to consider regarding Johansen as well:
- Vieira is already familiar with Johansen from coaching him in the Manchester City EDS
- Johansen was signed last season with an eye towards him being the future and long term goalkeeper for NYCFC.
- Age is another factor. Saunders is entering this season at 35 years old, meaning the cat-like reflexes could start becoming less cat-like. Johansen, on the other hand, is 23 years old and is just now starting to enter his prime years.
- 2015 was also an outlier season for Saunders. He reached career highs in games played, games started, minutes and saves. He recorded 43 more saves last year than his last recorded career high with the Galaxy, but 5 fewer shutouts than that same season. Obviously, the porous backline was at fault for many of the goals conceded, but it should also not be expected for Saunders to replicate his 2015 numbers either.
Now, do I expect Johansen to be the opening day goalkeeper this Sunday vs. the Chicago Fire? Not really (although I wouldn't be surprised). Even if Vieira prefers the way Johansen plays the role more than Saunders, there's the still the fact that Johansen is still fairly inexperienced. Vieira should prefer starting off on the right foot (i.e. winning) rather than holding too tightly to one style of play. But, as the season progresses I expect to see Johansen getting spot starts (definitely more than he did last season), and if he continues to show the skills Vieira is looking for I would not be surprised to see him take over the starting goalkeeper position by mid-season.
What do you guys think?