CHESTER, Pa.– Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake has a simple set of goals on the surface, but with Major League Soccer continuing to get better and evolve, it can be hard for a goalkeeper to improve year over year.
The Jamaican international is coming off the best season of his career in 2018 and played in his 100th regular-season game for the Union on Sunday at Sporting Kansas City.
“It’s a great feeling,” Blake said. “The club has done a lot for me, and in return, I just want to keep doing everything I can to be successful on the field and to give back to the club. It’s definitely a great feeling. It’s a big milestone. Not a lot of players have done it. They haven’t been all positive, or all happy moments, it’s been a great ride, but it’s a part of the journey.”
Blake has consistently set high goals for himself since he was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft.
In 2018, Blake recorded career highs in wins and saves and he hit 10 clean sheets in a season for the first time.
“For me, every season statistically I want to get better numbers,” Blake said. “If you go back to 2016, I had six shutouts. In 2017, it was nine. In 2018, it was 10. For me, those are major goals I set for myself. I always want to get more shutouts and less goals conceded.”
“Andre’s one of the top goalkeepers in our league,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “I think that’s no secret. He has the ability to win the game for you by himself. To get to 100 games is a big benchmark. It’s crazy to think we’ve had him for that long and just how well he’s done for us.”
The 2016 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year fine tunes his skill set throughout the offseason to adjust to how the game continues to evolve.
But Blake isn’t improving just for the sake of improving, as he’s focusing on the things the Union need out of him to be better as a team.
“The game is changing,” Blake said. “A lot of clubs now are asking their goalkeeper to play with their feet, or whatever the case may be, but listen I’m not going to stand here and tell you I’m going to be like a Ederson back there because that’s not the Union, we’re not built for that.”
“But for me, there’s always room for improvement,” Blake said. “Whenever I go home in the offseason, I always work on my feet, get better touches, try to get into better positions to receive the ball, you can play either way, you can take one touch or take two touches to just try to help out your teammates when they’re in a tough spot to move the ball from one side to the next.”
Some of the adjustments Blake worked on in the offseason had to do with the style of play sporting director Ernst Tanner brought to the club.
“(Tanner)’s different,” Blake said. “He let it be known right off the bat what he wanted to change and what he liked, what he didn’t like. It’s a new system and he’s going to bring in the pieces necessary for us to be successful. All we have to do is give it some time and hopefully all the pieces that came in can fall into place as quickly as possible and for us to be positive on the field going forward.”
On the training field, Blake has a familiar face helping him get better, as Oka Nikolov returned to the club as goalkeeping coach after spending a year with the LA Galaxy.
“It’s good to have Oka back,” Blake said. “He’s a great guy. We get along very well. He knows exactly when to push me and knows exactly what to do. I think we have a great relationship from the past. It’s great to have him back. I just come to training every day and work hard, listen to him and try to understand what he’s trying to get me to do and we just learn from each other as we go.”
For Blake and the Union, the focus right now is improving week by week in Tanner’s system and earning the first point of the 2019 season, which could be difficult to earn on Sunday against Atlanta United.
“It’s early,” Blake said. “That’s the obvious, but we can’t be naive and just think that everything is going to automatically fall into place. We have to push ourselves. We have to make it happen. And that goes back to the way we train, the way we help each other on the field. Just little stuff like that.”
“When everybody’s all bought in and committed, we know how good we can be and I think right now we’re not fully confident as a team and that comes with winning games and right now a few bounces haven’t gone our way,” Blake said. “I think we’ve gotten some tough calls, but it’s a part of the game and we just have to stay together, keep believing, most importantly, and just keep working and once we do what we have to do, things will start to go our way.”