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Stefan Frei robbed of Goalkeeper of the Year

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It appears a groundswell of player support gave the award to Zack Steffen.

MLS: Seattle Sounders at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

End-of-season awards are always a bit of a popularity contest, almost by definition. But this year, the chatter and the statistics all seemed to be pointed to Stefan Frei winning the award for the first time. That was wrong.

In what can only be called a shocking upset, Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen won the award despite having a rather unremarkable year by most statistical measurements. How did he do it? Steffen was BY FAR the most popular goalkeeper among his fellow players, while Frei ranked a rather distant fifth in that voting bloc. Steffen also performed well among the club voters — another voting bloc he won — while finishing fifth among media members.

The gap in the player vote was so extreme, that it appears to have dramatically swayed the overall results. Rather than a reasonably comfortable six-point win, Steffen would have finished third with Frei beating out Luis Robles 24.9-22.43 if the player votes were thrown out.

There also appears to have been a bit of gamesmanship, at least among the player bloc. While almost all of the club votes were allocated to the top 5 vote getters and the media gave them nearly 88 percent of their vote, nearly 24 percent of the player votes went to others. Players are not allowed to vote for teammates, but nothing stops them from pooling their votes for goalkeepers who they see as less of a threat to win.

Politics aside, the final vote is a bit of a head-scratcher. Steffen’s goals against average of 1.28 was tied for the eighth best among eligible goalkeepers; his 12 wins are the 10th most; and his 66 saves and 64.1 save percentage are barely in the top 20. The only major statistic in which he ranks among the Top 5 is shutouts, where his 10 are tied with five other players for third most. Perhaps most damning is Steffen’s xGA-GA statistic. Steffen ranks 17th among goalkeepers with at least 1,000 minutes, allowing 1.64 MORE goals than American Soccer Analysis’ Expected Goals model suggests he should.

Frei, in contrast, just finished off the second best xGA-GA season in the statistic’s eight-year history by allowing 12.96 FEWER goals than the model suggests he should. Frei also ranked third among qualified goalkeepers with a 1.03 GAA and second among qualified goalkeepers by saving 76 percent of the shots he faced.