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Quality backup goalkeepers: extravagance or necessity?

Apr 12, 2012, 5:10 PM EDT

Paolo Tornaghi

Is a high-quality backup goalkeeper an extravagance in Major League Soccer?

Most of us may discuss and debate this leisurely, over cold ones with friends while trying desperately to remember that adorable server’s name. It’s just a hypothetical for us.

But for MLS decision makers this is a significant, real-world choice – with possible employment consequences. And them’s big consequences.

Toronto FC has a choice to make once Stefan Frei returns from a broken leg. Word comes that the choice may already have been made, as The Sun out of Canada says Aron Winter and crew were looking to move Frei, who was expendable because Milos Kocic developed apace and held steady in starting assignments.

Toronto, like so many other sides, has real needs around the field. So, can they afford to keep a potential starter on the bench when other needs are pressing? Making the right call could mean the difference in playoffs or no playoffs – and job or no job.

The five teams that may have such a “luxury,” if you consider it so:

Toronto FC – Kocic was in goal for the side’s one shining moment in 2012, the massive march win at Los Angeles. He’s been strong enough since then, which is why Frei may be on the outs.

Columbus – It’s getting harder to remember a time when William Hesmer wasn’t the No. 1 around Crew Stadium. But Andy Gruenebaum has never disappointed when forced by injury into duty. Gruenebaum is 29, hardly old for a goalkeeper. Kevin Hartman, 37, remains one of the league’s best, and Kasey Keller just hung ‘em up at 41. So Gruenebaum has time to latch onto a starting assignment somewhere.

D.C. United – This is a little out of nowhere, because the sample for second-year man Joe Willis remains tiny (just four matches this year, after three last year). But the 23-year-old sure looks up for a starting job somewhere. Would United consider making a move considering they have two promising ‘keeper prospects in Willis and U.S. under-23 Bill Hamid? (Not to mention young Andrew Dykstra, formerly a starter in Chicago.)

Chicago Fire – Everyone assumed the No. 1 shirt at Toyota Park was solid property of Sean Johnson, a quality up-and-comer who already has time with the U.S. national team, plus 41 career starts for the Fire. But along comes Paolo Tornaghi (pictured) – and the young Italian isn’t bad at all. Johnson is back from his time with the Olympic team, but it looks like Tornaghi is Frank Klopas’ man for now.

New England – Matt Reis has been the trusty incumbent for so long around Gillette Stadium, there has never been much need to discuss importing a young buck to push competition. For the last couple of years Bobby Shuttleworth has been backup, and a Shuttleworth appearance has generally not meant any significant dropoff in goal guarding quality. You wonder how many teams might be happy with Shuttleworth, 24, as a starter?

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