With Kasey Keller set to move on following the 2011 season, the Seattle Sounders are looking for a suitable, long-term replacement. This year, they're chosen to work from within, focusing on getting Terry Boss to take that next step as well as grooming one of the two younger goalkeepers chosen in the offseason drafts -- Josh Ford and Bryan Meredith.
For the first time, the Sounders are able to draw from their own when a third keeper is needed instead of pulling from a pool of MLS emergency goalkeepers. Sounders FC goalkeepers coach Tom Dutra was excited the rosters were expanding this year, giving him the opportunity to add a third goalkeeper, using the spot to develop a young player with eyes to the future.
"I was so excited this year when we knew the roster sizes were gonna get bigger and we were gonna have our No. 3," Dutra said. "The idea is to have a young one, learn under Kasey, be able to be receptive to information and new ideas, but also try to groom him to become a No. 1. Because with the goalkeeper position, it takes so long until you're really ready to be a No. 1."
The Sounders had their eye on two keepers, and hoped to secure both ahead of camp. Ford and Meredith both attended the Sounders own combine, as well as the MLS combine, and opened eyes of the Seattle scouts in attendance.
"I had them both in Las Vegas at our combine and they did very well, they rated out one and two in our combine there. At the MLS combine they rated out one and two there, as well," Dutra said, giving an insight into the scouting process. "It was nice to see that, but also we were hoping we were able to get them and let them battle for that number 3 spot."
By this point in camp, though, with roster battles nearly decided, it's Ford and Meredith making the coaches' lives hard, forcing them to postpone any decision on the third keeper spot until the last moment. From the sounds of it, if the coaches could combine the two into one player, all the problems would be solved.
"They're doing unbelievable well. They're neck and neck," Dutra said before evaluating their progress. "One has a strength that's the other one's weakness the other one has a strength that the other goalkeeper might be weak at. I'd say Josh is a better shot stopper and Bryan is probably better on crosses and from there on they're pretty much even."
The competition isn't just between Ford and Meredith, though: All four keepers are competing and elevating their play. The goal, according to Dutra, was to find a keeper, or in this case two, that would push Terry Boss, who would push Kasey Keller, making each keeper better. The competition has been a side-benefit for Dutra and the coaches, who are watching each battle every day in practice.
"With the third goalkeeper I always said I wanted a No. 3 this year that didn't want to be a No. 3, but that wanted to be a No. 2. I didn't want somebody that just wanted to be a No. 3 that said 'hey I'm on the team, I'm gonna be a pro,'" he said. "I wanted a guy that would come in and battle for that No. 2 spot because I want Terry battling for the No. 1 spot. That's what I want. Can they pass them right now? Sure, if they keep working hard. But right now, Terry is our No. 2."
Even with a heated competition ongoing, Ford, Meredith and the rest of the keepers have become a family within the team, looking out for each other throughout training camp. After practice, Ford and Meredith are regularly working together to improve, despite knowing they're in competition with each other over one spot. Dutra had an easy explanation for it all.
"We all encourage each other. We like to say we're all part of the goalkeeper's union, we take care of everyone," he said. "That's how they look at it. We're stuck on one side of the field and the team's on the other side. We all stick together, we're a pretty tight group."
While the coaches have joked about keeping all four keepers, there doesn't look to be a way that could happen with the roster and cap the way it is right now. In that regard, the Sounders do have a problem as they work to figure out whether to keep Ford or Meredith, though it's a great problem to have.
The talent at the keeper spot, from Kasey Keller down the line, is beneficial both now and in the future as the unit works together to push each other in practice and improve every day. Who knows, maybe one of these two will be a future star, developing under the tutelage of Keller and the watchful eye of Dutra this season.