USMNT GK breakdown: How Steffen, Turner, Horvath, Johnson and Slonina stack up

USMNT GK breakdown: How Steffen, Turner, Horvath, Johnson and Slonina stack up

The start of the major European league campaigns marks the stretch run of World Cup roster building. For the USMNT, a sizable portion of the roster feels sorted, but two key positions have question marks. While strikers will undoubtedly be the buzzier area of focus, this is also the least cut-and-dry goalkeeper depth chart the United States has had in a generation.

This summer has seen four of the five prospective No. 1s make moves via transfer or loan. With so much change having taken place since the United States punched its ticket to Qatar, let’s assess the hopefuls between the sticks, with The Athletic’s resident goalkeeper expert Matt Pyzdrowski adding his analysis of each player’s strengths and weaknesses.

Club: Middlesbrough (on loan from Manchester City)

Steffen’s time as a dedicated backup at Man City was just one factor that weakened his claim to the United States’ No. 1 shirt. Matt Turner’s rapid rise and injuries kept Steffen from making multiple qualifier trips, and while he has earned 10 caps since the start of 2021, he didn’t appear as consistent as he had in years past.

Ultimately, it became clear to City and Steffen alike that the 27-year-old would be better served earning consistent match action. He could have landed in far worse situations than the one at Middlesbrough; The club is among the favorites to earn promotion from the EFL Championship, and his arrival has been a crucial piece of their summer business. Manager Chris Wilder plays a progressive system which should help Steffen get his mojo back with the ball at his feet, and the Championship’s structure also gives him an additional five matchdays (21, compared to 16 for the Premier League) to showcase his form before the World Cup break.

Pyzdrowski’s analysis: Steffen’s greatest strength is his proactive play, and eliminating chances before they happen (in the air, on the ground, and in behind the defense). Conversely, one of the knocks on him has been his inferior shot-stopping ability compared to Turner’s.

While it’s true that his numbers in the shot-stopping department aren’t as good as Turner’s, the reality is that football is a total sum game, and all of his attributes (cross management, organization of the defense, shot-stopping, and building out of the back) in total add up to just a bit more than Turner’s at this point in Berhalter’s eyes. It’s also arguably the biggest reason why he remained Berhalter’s preferred option in goal when healthy for the USMNT throughout World Cup qualifying.

Distribution in particular has been highlighted as one of Steffen’s strengths. The ability to play out of the back is about more than just completing passes, it’s about analyzing the risks vs rewards, the positioning of the opposition, the positioning of your teammates, and completing the right passes at the right times to build up play and beat the opposition’s pressure over and over again successfully. Turner certainly isn’t poor with his feet, but he doesn’t have the repertoire or arsenal that Steffen has in that area.

While Steffen’s distribution has struggled for both club and country as of late – including a high profile error against Liverpool in the FA Cup Final – he has taken a step in the right direction in two recent matches.

Against Marseille in a preseason friendly, Steffen was constantly part of his team’s buildup, and was also able to spray the ball at varying distances and angles all over the pitch to beat the pressure and retain possession for his team.

Against West Brom in Boro’s EFL Championship opener, his shot-stopping and proactive play stood out. In total he made four saves, including this excellent sequence of events in the 55th minute which saw him close down the attacker right in front of goal and spread himself to make the save, before proactively punching away a dangerous cross under pressure just 10 seconds later.

It is these types of performances that will be necessary for Steffen over the next several months if he wants to solidify himself as the starter for the USMNT in Qatar and keep the challengers to his No.1 jersey at bay.

Steffen did make a costly error in Middlesbrough’s most recent away match against QPR, a match they wound up losing 3-2. In the 27th minute Steffen misjudged a corner kick and mistimed his punch in traffic, giving the hosts a 2-0 lead in the first half.

Though Steffen should have done better in this situation, these are the exact types of repetitions he needs to be getting and working through leading up to the World Cup. The only way he can eliminate errors like this one from his game is by playing consistently, making mistakes, learning from them, and moving forward.

Every goalkeeper is given a different amount of leeway from their coach. Steffen has started the biggest U.S. games played under Berhalter – his former coach with the Columbus Crew in MLS, and has clearly earned his coaches’ trust over time. Because of that his leash remains a little longer than Turner’s at the moment.

The Athletic’s projection: A lock for the roster, current front-runner to start at the World Cup — pending club form.

(David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Matt Turner

Club: Arsenal

The headline transfer move among this quintet was Turner’s, as he transferred to Arsenal from the New England Revolution after 102 appearances in six-and-a-half years. His rise from going undrafted to becoming a key part of the 2022 World Cup qualification is among the best stories of any player in the pool.

At Arsenal, however, Turner will likely struggle to get the same consistent match action that he found in MLS. As the main backup for Aaron Ramsdale, Turner may get a cup match here or there (last year, Mikel Arteta used Bernd Leno in four league games, one FA Cup tie and three Carabao Cup matches). That said, the initial few months of high-level training figures to be a higher level than his MLS routine.

“I have to train at a higher level,” Turner told The Athletic ahead of his move. “The style of play with the Revolution is mighty old school. If there’s pressure, we don’t really try to play out of it too much. At Arsenal, the goalkeepers are required to play a little bit more with the ball, playing in the system rather than just sort of going out there. They have to follow tactics and game plans a little more closely. Those are things that I know are valued with the national team that I’ll be challenged more with Arsenal.”

Pyzdrowski’s Analysis: Adapting to the speed of play with the ball at his feet in the Premier League and staying ready, fit, and in form despite not playing regular first team football will be his challenge in the lead up to the World Cup.

Of course he wants to play and contribute, but being a backup in the short term might not be as big of an issue as some may think. Training presents an opportunity for Turner to work on the deficiencies in his game in a safe and controlled environment without the added pressure of performing in games and making costly mistakes in situations that do matter.  If he is able to work on his shortcomings and improve in those areas, then when the time comes for him to play, he will be that much more well rounded in his play and ready to take advantage of his opportunity when it presents itself.

There will come a time when game time will be necessary to accelerate his development, but that’s not now. Berhalter’s hope will be that Turner will have a similar rise and development in his all-around game (becoming a more complete and total goalkeeper) heading into the World Cup that Steffen did in his first 12 months at City. If he does, then there’s no reason he can’t stand as the No.1 in Qatar.

Turner’s greatest strength has been and continues to be his athleticism and shot-stopping. It’s what he’s relied on thus far and it’s worked out incredibly well for him coming off an MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award and transfer to Arsenal this summer from the New England Revolution.

If he’s able to train at a high level and take advantage of his opportunities when he does get them, who says he can’t beat out Ramsdale for the No.1 jersey at Arsenal? It may seem unlikely but he’s hit longer odds than arguably any player ever has in USMNT history.

“I needed to shake it up heading into Qatar. I really needed to, in my opinion,” Turner said. “Is it risky? Yeah, probably a little bit. But at the end of the day, it’s a step forward for my career. I’ve always said that I want to see how far I can take soccer, I want to really push it. This is the logical next step if that’s my mentality.”

The Athletic’s projection: Virtual lock for the roster, sizable second-best chance to start at World Cup.

(Greg Bartram / USA TODAY Sports)

Club: New York City FC

The one player on the shortlist whose club situation hasn’t changed this summer, Johnson has been steady as ever again in the 2022 season. A first-time MLS Cup winner in 2021, Johnson has continued to backstop the Pigeons to great results. He was rewarded for his service as one of Commissioner Don Garber’s two picks for the 2022 All-Star roster, and has established himself as one of the most respected domestic players at any position in the league.

In a lot of ways, Johnson feels like this cycle’s version of the role which Nick Rimando and Marcus Hahnemann occupied during their careers. Both were veterans who were strong shot-stoppers, consistently showed well in training and understood their role as the third option in the international depth chart. If Berhalter wants to use the third goalkeeper slot for additional leadership in the locker room, there’s no better option in the pool than Johnson.

Pyzdrowski’s Analysis: Berhalter has said that the players most in form heading into the World Cup will start, so if Steffen and Turner lack game time and/or form and Johnson continues to play at the level he’s been playing at, then he could and rightfully should be the next guy up.

Johnson’s lack of experience with the USMNT over the past 10 years may pose some questions, but we’re not talking about a young keeper here being thrown to the wolves. Johnson is 33 years old, has nearly 350 MLS appearances under his belt, leads MLS with 11 shutouts this season and proven time and time again he is someone who can bail his team out of trouble when they need it most. He’s prevented five more goals than an average goalkeeper would be expected to save this season in the league (+5.0 PSxG), good enough for the 3rd best in MLS, while Austin’s Brad Stuver leads the league (+6.6 PSxG).

Let’s also not forget he stood on his head in his latest appearance for the USMNT in a 0-0 draw against Uruguay.

Speaking afterward, Berhalter singled out Johnson for praise.

“Sean Johnson in goal, who has been really asking for a difficult opportunity or a challenging game, and he got his game and he responded,” said Berhalter. “I thought he played an excellent game.”

Even as a starter, the USMNT could do much worse.

The Athletic’s projection: Likely has the inside track for third on the depth chart.

(Jon Hobley/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Club: Luton Town (on loan from Nottingham Forest)

Once touted to be the future of the USMNT, Horvath’s career hasn’t always risen in an upward trajectory. Installed as Molde’s starter by Ole Gunnar Solskjær in 2015, Horvath seemed to have a path to make the 2018 World Cup roster and inherit the No. 1 shirt from Tim Howard at the end of the cycle.

Instead, a 2017 move to Club Brugge failed to cement him on the international level. While he notched 51 league appearances in four seasons, the club seemed adamant to add greater veteran leadership in the role, first adding Croatia international ​​Karlo Letica before bringing in Simon Mignolet from Liverpool. Similarly, he struggled to get minutes during Nottingham Forest’s promotion campaign.

However, a loan to Luton Town should help him finally return to regular action. One of the Championship’s most pleasant surprises in 2021-22, the Hatters kicked off their new season with Horvath between the sticks in a 0-0 draw against Birmingham City. Horvath was able to remind United States fans of his quality during an unforgettable Nations League appearance off the bench, and he may be the most big-game-tested option outside of Steffen and Turner in the hierarchy.

Pyzdrowski’s analysis: Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 85 kg (187 lbs.), Horvath is similar in stature to U.S. goalkeeping great Brad Friedel, who spent decades in the Premier League. His skill set is also uniquely similar, yet a little bit more modern.

Horvath has great reflexes and is a good shot-stopper – as many American keepers have been – but he is modern in the sense that he is not afraid to be aggressive off his line. Friedel liked to consistently stick to his line and rely on his shot-stopping, where Horvath is a bit more comfortable moving forward, specifically in one-v-one situations and when he has to sweep up behind his back line. In that sense, he is eerily similar to Nick Pope at Burnley.

Horvath is arguably the U.S.’s most experienced goalkeeper not named Steffen or Turner, having already performed under pressure against Mexico in the U.S.’s 3-2 victory in the Nations League final last June.

Horvath proved the difference maker in that match after coming on in the second half for an injured Steffen and making four big saves, including one on a potentially equalizing penalty kick deep into stoppage time of the second extra-time period. The victory wouldn’t have been possible if not for the heroic efforts from their backup keeper.

Horvath isn’t perfect, of course. He has been adequate with his feet up to this point, particularly when asked to be the pivot at the back and complete short(er) balls to his central defenders wide of goal, but he is not always as accurate when he is under pressure by the opposition’s forwards, or has to go longer and clip the ball over the first line of pressure. That ability was the biggest difference between Brice Samba and Horvath at Forrest and is one of the reasons why Samba regained his starting position last April despite strong performances from Horvath.

Though Horvath has experience on his side at the international level, he will still need to work his way into the mix for the World Cup through consistent game time over the coming months. Without it, he will likely miss out on Qatar.

The Athletic’s projection: Strong contender for roster, may be odd man out.

(Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

Chicago Fire (on loan from Chelsea)

Seen as the future of the position, Slonina has already kept 14 clean sheets in his first 34 MLS starts despite only turning 18 in April. The Illinois native has been able to work through his growing pains with the Chicago Fire, a team which both needed a hometown hero to fill the void left by Djordje Mihailovic’s trade to CF Montréal and has suffered middling results for half a decade. He’s done well to make the most of this opportunity, and earned a move to Chelsea with the future in mind earlier this week

Stat Per 90 Percentile
PSxG-GA +0.05 62
Save% 69.0% 44
PSxG/SoT 0.31 56
Save% (Penalty Kicks) 16.7% 61
Clean Sheet Percentage 41.2% 93
Crosses Stopped % 8.3% 64
Def. Actions Outside Pen. Area 0.38 21

Stats via fbref

He’ll stay in Chicago for the remainder of the MLS season, which bodes well for his development, and one would think he could return to MLS next season if he isn’t ready for a loan in Europe.

There are three distinct ways which national teams tend to use their third spot on the goalkeeper depth chart. Some want a veteran leader, others look for a genuine third competitor for minutes and still others identify the future at the position and bring them to the tournament for additional seasoning before their minutes increase. While Johnson and Horvath fit the other descriptions to a T, there’s no brighter American prospect between the posts than Slonina. Being part of the roster in 2022 could make him a genuine competitor to start when the World Cup comes back to North America in four years’ time.

Pyzdrowski’s analysis: Teams rarely use the bottom of their roster for more than competition in training anyways; why not use it on a player that you believe will be the future of your program and get him the valuable experience of a major tournament?

While Slonina’s reflexes are top notch like a lot of young goalkeepers, where he really differentiates himself from his peers is in his decision making process and calmness on the field of play.

One area he will have to improve is his parrying ability – the skill of pushing the ball wide of goal and away from danger. Too often, he hits the ball back into play instead of pushing it wide into a non-threatening area.

Despite some deficiencies in his technique, Slonina has a unique ability to keep the ball out of the net by any means possible – a skill that frankly can’t be taught, and one that all the best goalkeepers in the world have in common. It may not always be pretty, or by the book from a technical perspective, but it’s effective. His unorthodox save against the Philadelphia Union is a great example.

His distribution and game management with the ball at his feet is arguably his greatest weakness at the moment. This is both from dead balls in addition to passes from open play, especially while under pressure from the opposition. Though Slonina rarely gets to practice the kinds of pressured passes with the Fire that he might need at Chelsea, largely because he’s not asked to build up play from the back for his team on a regular basis, Slonina should focus on making the most of his touches to improve his distribution as much as possible.

Even with room for improvement in his distribution and goalkeeping technique, it’s clear that Slonina’s ceiling is incredibly high. Based on his promise and current performance level, he has the potential to accomplish a whole list of things that no American goalkeeper ever has on the world stage. That should make Berhalter and his staff incredibly excited for the future of their program.

The Athletic’s projection: On the outside looking in.

About the Author: Mofazzal Hossen

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