The 2019 MLS season is in sight. After a historic inaugural season, LAFC returns for Year Two with raised expectations and unfinished business. To prepare you for the long season, we're taking a look at LAFC's squad from top to bottom. Read our previous profiles on the defense and midfield after you've finished this goalkeepers piece. The LAFC attack is still to come...
It Takes A Certain Mentality
Sports are rife with clichés. Soccer is no different. Off the top of your head, you can probably come up with your starting 11 of soccer's most overused phrased.
It's a game of two halves... 2-0 is the most dangerous lead... Italians can only defend...
Ok, I slipped that last one in there because it's my least favorite. Ranked right next to it though is the saying that goalkeepers have to be a bit crazy to play the position. But then I posed that very saying to the three goalkeepers on LAFC's roster and they all nodded in agreement.
"Putting ourselves in the way of people that are shooting, kicking at us, and hitting us, there's a certain aspect of courage and bravery that a goalkeeper has to have in order to play the position," Tyler Miller said of being a little crazy.
When a professional goalkeeper puts it that way, it actually makes a lot of sense.
So here's a look at the craziest player on any team and a deep dive into the LAFC goalkeepers:
Style Of Play
"For us, at this Club and LAFC, we need a goalkeeper that's able to play out of the back and be comfortable in situations when you're under pressure but also recognizes that our team is going to push high and we are going to leave ourselves exposed at times. So we need someone who's got that ability to make a play and make a save." - Tyler Miller
The goalkeeping position has been going this way for a while now.
Goalkeepers that can use their feet are no longer the exception to the rule. They've become the norm. When a coach says he needs a goalkeeper to start the attack, it's almost become its own cliché. But the way the game is going, goalkeepers are not only expected to participate in what teams are doing with the ball; they're integral to it.
At LAFC, both the way the team likes to build out of the back and the high line it holds in attack require goalkeepers to be active with their feet. It's not uncommon to see multiple passes to the goalkeeper to switch the point of attack in buildup and defenders have to be able to count on the goalkeeper as a safety valve to retain possession when the team is high up the pitch.
But as Miller's quote to start this section mentions, goalkeepers also have to be prepared to do their No. 1 job: stop shots.
In many ways, the style of shot-stopper LAFC employ mirrors its philosophy in other areas of the pitch. Goalkeepers are asked to be aggressive both in their positioning and in challenging attackers. It forces the issue on opponents, not allowing them to dictate the angles and time they have on the ball.
But there is also a great deal goalkeepers can do even before the shot.
"You've got to organize your backline, you've to make sure everybody is covering their man," Pablo Sisniega said about marshaling the team in front of him. "You can save a lot of goals without actually making a save if your line is organized."
That attention to detail even before the ball is in dangerous position extends to all areas of the pitch as well. With the best vantage point behind the attack, the goalkeepers are constantly adjusting the position of teammates even when LAFC has the ball. The goal is to anticipate transition opportunities and put teammates in the best positions to recover balls should they turn over.
"Every goalkeeper has their own personality. For me, my personality is being aggressive and commanding the team." - Phillip Ejimadu
To start 2019, LAFC brought in two newcomers to its goalkeeping corps.
Phillip Ejimadu and Pablo Sisniega come to LA with two very different backgrounds and styles.
Ejimadu is a raw talent at just 19. He has a commanding presence in goal and arrives at LAFC having spent the last five years in Brazil. His reflexes and ability to close down opponents in 1v1 situations have been his strengths. While he'll admit learning to play with his feet as much as LAFC requires is the steepest learning curve he is facing.
Sisniega arrives from Real Sociedad in Spain. The Mexican international comes in having a certain level of comfort playing out of the back. In La Liga, goalkeepers that can't play with their feet don't see the pitch, so Sisniega has developed that part of his game at a high level. He also relies on positioning and patience as a shot-stopper. Sisniega is more the type to wait out an attacker and use his superior reflexes to make a save than forcing the issue.
That balance between being aggressive and patient is what he considers his biggest challenge in arriving at LAFC.
Returning The Core
"You've got to be strong mentally to be able to support the pressure and just live with the position." - Pablo Sisniega
Last season, Tyler Miller was in goal for LAFC in all but one match.
"Being one of the guys who got a National Team call-up definitely gives me a lot of confidence moving forward.”— LAFC (@LAFC) January 24, 2019
A breakout 2018 season was just the beginning for @Tymiller01 pic.twitter.com/wxeUDyru5A
After a breakout season in which he earned his first senior-level U.S. Men's National Team call-up, Miller is looking to solidify his place among the elite goalkeepers in MLS.
In 2018, Miller set career-highs in starts, wins, saves, and shutouts. Through four matches in 2019, he's continued to provide LAFC with pivotal saves in big moments. Miller has made it a priority to help his team by starting attacks out the back with his feet. His comfort on the ball has grown, as has his awareness of when to go long in danger moments.
What To Expect
"In order for our team to reach our ultimate goal, which is winning a championship, goalkeepers need to play a huge part in it. Whether it's on the actual game day or in training helping guys to improve each day and become better players." - Tyler Miller
As expected, LAFC has started the season with Tyler Miller in net. After his 2018, he's earned the right to be called LAFC's No. 1. But the entire goalkeeper group is competitive this season and Miller has embraced the competition.
Both Pablo Sisniega and Phillip Ejimadu have shown their willingness to learn and work hard in training. They both know that if an opportunity presents itself, they'll need to be ready to command all aspects of the position.
And beyond the starting job, the goalkeepers have to raise the level of the team each day at training.
"At the end of the day, training is where everyone improves and is able to work on their skills," Miller said. "If we're able to push our teammates every day and challenge them to beat us and it gets harder and harder for them to beat us, it'll be easier for them in games."
The goalkeeper position is often misunderstood and sometimes lonely. No matter who's between the posts though for LAFC this season, it's going to take a group effort from this goalkeeping crew in training and on match days to lift the side to its goal.