On Oct. 26, 2017, the Columbus Crew had an improbable victory in the knockout round of the MLS Cup Playoffs, against favored Atlanta United at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Then-Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who just made his Champions League debut with his new club Manchester City, saved a combined eight shots on target in the 120 minutes of regulation and extra time. He followed that up with two saves in the penalty kick shootout, doing his part to help Columbus advance in the MLS Cup playoffs.
One day before that historic Black & Gold goalkeeping performance, there was an even more improbable event in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Vancouver Whitecaps beat the San Jose Earthquakes in the Western Conference knockout round 5-0. For a sport that is known to be relatively low-scoring, and in the playoffs no less, it was a blowout. At goalkeeper for the Earthquakes was Andrew Tarbell. It was his first career MLS Cup playoff match.
Tarbell started his second career MLS Cup playoff match two weeks ago in a 2-0 win against Nashville SC. It was a four-save performance by the backup keeper that Columbus brought into the team in February for $75,000 of General Allocation Money.
Looking back on the 2020 Crew season, it’s been money well-spent. Starting goalkeeper Eloy Room suffered an injury in July at the MLS is Back Tournament. Tarbell started the next four games for the Crew, going 2-2. One of those losses came on in a penalty kick shootout in the first knockout round of the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando.
He’d be called upon again on October 4th when Room left the Crew’s 2-2 draw against FC Dallas, in the 71st minute, when Tarbell held the score line. His next three matches in goal resulted in two losses and a victory but the real spotlight of his time in Columbus has come in the past two weeks, in the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Room was added to the medically unable to play list after the first round of this year’s playoff, putting Tarbell again on center stage against a Nashville side that was fresh off a 1-0 victory against No. 2 seed Toronto FC. Tarbell started last week’s 2-0 victory against the New England Revolution, which sent the Crew to the MLS Cup Final, making four saves
Now with the championship game looming, a big question is who starts in goal for Columbus with Room back and healthy, the No. 1 goalkeeper or the hot hand ?
When you compare the two goalkeepers, in terms of statistics, there isn’t much between them. Including the MLS Cup playoffs, Room has played most of the season, starting 18 games. Tarbell has started eight contests, plus his substitute appearance against FC Dallas. Both goalkeepers hold a win percentage of 55.6 percent. Tarbell edges Room out in save percentage, 71.4 percent to 70.5 precent, and goals against average, with Tarbell allowing 0.75 goals per match to 0.94 for Room.
Comparing the two and their experience against Saturday’s MLS Cup Final opponent, the Seattle Sounders, both have the same number of matches played against the two-time MLS Cup champions. In 2018, the season where the Sounders came off a 2-0 loss in the 2017 MLS Cup Final, Tarbell’s Earthquakes lost 1-0. Room’s lone match against the Sounders came in March of this season, where the Black & Gold left Seattle with one point in a 1-1 draw.
The 31-year old Dutch goalkeeper is number one on the team sheet for a reason. In 2020 alone, he won MLS Save of the Year for a play where he had limited visibility due to a clogged 18-yard box. Losing his starting position was in no way connected to his work on the field.
As is the case in soccer, statistics do not tell the whole story. Throughout 2020, practices have been closed door. That means there is no way to see who is performing the best in training. It may be a decision that comes down to reaction time in training sessions, or maybe it comes down to Room starting since he was brought in to be Columbus’ No. 1 goalkeeper.
Another wrinkle in the decision is the team in front of the goalkeeper. Does having a healthy side make a difference? With midfield playmakers Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos placed on the medically unable to play list, does head coach Caleb Porter go with Room regardless because of the amount of experience he has playing with the backline?
Either way, Porter is in a great position getting to choose which well-performing goalkeeper can start for a chance at the MLS Cup. Regardless of who makes the starting 11, Porter’s team is ingrained with the mentality that everyone plays both offense and defense. A goalkeeper alone can’t stop the opposing team from scoring and Columbus has had a standout season in that department.
Center back, and team captain, Jonathan Mensah, who finished third in the 2020 MLS Defender of the Year award, hasn’t missed a minute all season. On Sunday, he had nine clearances, and two within the final minute of extra time.
Opposite Mensah is Josh Williams, an MLS veteran center back who has split time with Aboubacar Keita until the playoffs, when the Ohio native grabbed hold of the starting position. Williams had three clearances and an important late-match block against New England, helping keep the clean sheet for Columbus. As Massive Report writer Pat Murphy shared today, he’s had a career season.
On top of the traditional defensive positions, it’s normal to see midfielders Artur and Lucas Zelarayan getting in the way of shots and crosses, or backs Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela sprinting back from offensive duties to intercept a pass.
It’s this defensive mentality that only allowed 21 goals in the regular season, second in MLS only to the Philadelphia Union’s 20.
Porter has a decision to make. But you can too below.
Who should start the MLS Cup Final, in goal, for Columbus Crew SC?
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