Zack Steffen’s transfer from Columbus Crew to Manchester City was one of the most spectacular transfers involving a Major League Soccer player in 2018. Transferred in a deal worth $7 million and $10 million, the goalkeeper will join Manchester City in the summer of 2019.
It was a watershed moment for the Columbus Crew, but also MLS.
Steffen, when he eventually joins Manchester City, will become the most expensive goalkeeper to leave MLS and only the fourth goalkeeper to leave the league in a multimillion dollar deal. The previous record was held by Tim Howard, who joined Manchester United for $4 million from the New York MetroStars.
Overall, the league does not have a strong history when it comes to exporting goalkeepers, despite the likes of Brad Friedel, Tim Howard and Brad Guzan playing in the English Premier League.
The reason for this is simple. MLS does not have a reputation for developing goalkeeper talent capable of playing at the highest European level consistently despite the Zack Steffen transfer.
“Goalkeepers playing in the European top-five leagues (EPL, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga and Ligue 1) have a goalkeeper saves per goal average of 2.43. The MLS average is essentially 2.05,” football analyst Aidan Reagh explained to Pro Soccer USA.
Aidan Reagh also crunched the numbers for Pro Soccer USA of the 23 goalkeepers that have played at least five games during the first eight matchdays of the season. New England Revolution goalkeepers Cody Cropper and Brad Knighton are not on the list because they started four times each during that time.
“Every league has an average set of goalkeepers or a main clump,” Reagh explains. “My personal interpretation of it is, based on league performance, player X is doing well and player Y is struggling.”
Steffen and Frei, in particular, stand out this season. Steffen has made 4.6 saves per game and 3.290 saves per match. Meanwhile, Frei has made 3.110 saves per game and 4.000 save per match.
Two factors make MLS an interesting comparison to the big leagues in Europe. Taking a closer look at Reagh’s graph, it becomes quickly apparent there are not many outliers — both negative and positive.
Most keepers are tightly clustered together in the graph, suggesting there is not a big difference in the level of goalkeeping across the league.
“I think we can agree that MLS has more average goalkeepers than most leagues, but this average is also much lower than in Europe, so it is a lower average,” Reagh concluded in his analysis of the data.
In a salary-cap based world, it is perhaps not surprising there are not many outliers among MLS keepers. According to the MLS salaries released by the MLSPA, only Tim Howard was on a multimillion dollar contract last season — he earned $2.475 million.
Furthermore, Frei and Steffen, who lead the pack among Reagh’s goalkeeper data, only made $262,500 and $145,000, respectively. With resources limited by the salary cap, franchises tend to focus on spending their money on attacking players rather than goalkeepers or defenders.
Howard, in fact, was the only defensive player to break into the top 20 best-paid players in the league last season. The market, in other words, is focused on bringing in attacking talent, which means franchises tend to build top-heavy sides with little focus on the backline.
In many ways, that explains why goalkeepers in Major League Soccer are struggling in comparison to their European counterparts based on the data collected by Reagh of average goals conceded per save. And it is one example of how the salary cap in some ways is stifling the growth of the league overall.
Goalkeepers are no longer considered simple shot-stoppers in most European leagues, they are considered an integral part of the buildup play.
To complete the data comparison between MLS keepers and their European counterparts, Pro Soccer USA crunched the numbers on scouting platform Wyscout. Dating to March 2, when the MLS season kicked off, only two MLS goalkeepers — Sean Johnson (NYCFC) with 24.97 passes per 90 minutes and Quentin Westberg (Toronto FC) with 23.34 passes per 90 minutes — break into the top 10 of a compiled list of goalkeepers from MLS and the top five European leagues.
Steffen is the only keeper that makes a passing accuracy top-10 list of goalkeepers from the six leagues. Steffen on average completes 91.63 percent of his passes. The Columbus Crew keeper also scores well when it comes to forward passes. On average, he completed 87.79 percent of his forward passes this season and ranks fifth overall in a combined ranking.
The list highlights several things. MLS still lags behind Europe’s elite leagues when it comes to goalkeeping, both in the key categories of saves per goal and saves per game, but also passing. The one major exception is Steffen, who will leave the league this summer and join Manchester City.
In general, managers in the league still spend most of their resources on attacking players, which means marquee players tend to be those who score goals, which is not too different from the major European leagues.
But as MLS moves forward in terms of tactics, goalkeepers will have to play a bigger role. Whether that will come from the league developing its own talent or by allocating more resources to bringing in goalkeepers remains to be seen.