For the first time in the short history of New York City FC, the goalkeeper position is up for grabs.
When NYCFC joined MLS in 2015 it was with the deeply mediocre Josh Saunders between the sticks, a goalkeeper who put up some solid numbers at LA Galaxy in 2011 and 2012, but who always looked panicked when playing the Bronx. Saunders directed the defense like a toxic soccer dad who goes to all the away games: His endless screaming put the team on edge, and when NYCFC shipped a goal he pulled off the mental jujitsu of taking it personally and blaming everybody else. No wonder then-head coach Patrick Vieira benched Saunders in the final game of the 2016 season to give backup Eirik Johansen his MLS debut, then stuck with Johansen for the team’s first-ever appearance in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately that didn’t go so well, but seemingly Vieira felt the seven goals Johnson let in were an improvement over what could have happened with Saunders on the field.
A few weeks later, NYCFC announced they snagged Sean Johnson from expansion side Atlanta United, who went on to sign Brad Guzan. The Johnson effect on the team was immediate. He provided a calming leadership to a jumpy backline, and as the defense grew in confidence it allowed the midfield to become more aggressive and progressive. Not to put too fine a point on it, the arrivals of Johnson and Maxi Moralez in 2017 changed everything at the club.
Now we’re about to undergo another change, as Luis Barraza and Matt Freese compete to replace Johnson after his
departure betrayal. For the first time in club history, the position of starting goalkeeper is up for grabs.
To be fair, Barraza is the heir apparent to Johnson. The 26-year-old was a standout backup to Johnson these past two seasons – he made four non-league appearances in 2022, posting a 3-1 record and notching two clean sheets – and he's popular with his teammates. The 6’ 2” Barraza is good with his feet, and he knows how to function in a system that keeps possession and plays out of the back. Transfermarkt values Barraza at €100,000, up from €50,000 in 2021.
Is Barraza the next Brad Stuver, the former NYCFC backup who established himself as one of the better goalkeepers in MLS after two seasons at Austin FC?
Or will that distinction belong to Freese, who was the long-serving (and long-suffering) backup to Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, widely considered to be the best in MLS? Just like Barraza, the 6’ 3” Freese didn't play in any MLS league games last year, but he made eight appearances in 2021, including six starts. Even though the 24-year-old didn’t get a single clean sheet, he is known for his physicality and shot-stopping ability.
But the style of play at Philadelphia is more central and direct than what you find at NYCFC – in plain English, they kick the ball up the field and try to score – and Freese will need to learn how to operate in a possession-based system. Transfermarkt values Freese at €200,000, up from €175,000 in 2020.
Who will be NYCFC’s goalkeeper in the season opener?
This poll is closed
Right now, Barraza seems to have the edge at NYCFC. Familiarity counts for a lot, and he already had good on-field chemistry with the team.
But this NYCFC team is undergoing a fundamental rebuild, and Freese seems to be making a strong impression with the coaching staff. The two have shared goalkeeping duties in competitive games this preseason, often switching at the half. Both seem to be getting a comprehensive tryout at the position.
There are only two competitive games left this preseason, and both are a part of the Coachella Valley Invitational. The first will be held tomorrow, February 15, at 3:30 pm ET, when NYCFC face St Louis CITY (really hate those all caps, trying way too hard). The second will be this Saturday, February 18, when NYCFC face Portland Timbers at 3 pm ET.
Will head coach Nick Cushing settle on Barraza or Freese, giving one or the other the full 90 minutes for both games? Or will he continue to divide the position, either by giving each one-half of both games, or playing one the full 90 tomorrow and the other the full 90 on Saturday?
Cushing will probably look at performances, fitness, and data, but we think there's only one way to settle this:
Either way, it looks like the goalkeeping position is truly competitive. We’re tipping Barraza to get the #1 jersey, and make the start on opening day, when New York City play Nashville SC. But we could see Freese in the Starting XI in Nashville, and maybe even pipping the #1 shirt — and Barraza sticking with #13.
The bigger issue is who will be the starting goalkeeper in October, when the regular season winds up and teams are preparing for the MLS Cup Playoffs. There’s a lot of soccer to be played between now and then, and we think the goalkeeper question won’t be settled for a while yet.
Who will cement himself as NYCFC’s starting goalkeeper this season?
This poll is closed
Whoever establishes himself as the team’s starting goalkeeper has some big, Sean Johnson-sized shoes to fill. NYCFC fans now expect their keeper to be among the best in MLS, and they expect either Barraza or Freese to rise to the occasion.