As anyone who’s ever donned a pair of gloves and stood between the posts could tell you, goalkeeping is a cruel and unjust profession. The striker can miss ten chances and get all the glory with one goal, whereas the goalkeeper can make ten saves and get all the blame with one mistake. On top of this, one mistake can be all it takes for you to lose your starting position to your understudy, who may then proceed to seize the rare opportunity for more playing time with both hands, and consign you permanently to the bench to rue your past decisions. With such a fine margin for error, failure is most definitely not an option for anyone manning the posts, whether it be Sunday league or the Premier League.
This brings us to the events of a little less than two weeks ago on September 19. That night the New York Red Bulls lost to FC Cincinnati off the backs of a wondergoal from Haris Medunjanin, who scored directly from a corner kick (the olimpico) to bag the only goal in an otherwise forgettable match. Considering the extraordinary nature of goals like this, a lot of questions were naturally raised over the competency of one David Jensen, who was called upon to not only take on goalkeeping duties that evening, but to also stake a claim to succeeding club legend Luis Robles after signing with the club in January.
One of the more common points of contention against Jensen was whether or not he was truly deserving of starting over Robles’ longtime deputy, Ryan Meara, who missed the game after picking up a quad injury during a 2-0 win over club rivals DC United the previous week. Truly, one can expect the debate to intensify as the campaign continues, considering Jensen’s somewhat difficult start to life in New York despite intermittent flashes of brilliance, and Meara’s perception among some of the faithful as a talented local product whose rightful time in the spotlight has been curtailed by circumstance.
With all this coming to the fore it seems an apt time to take stock on the Red Bulls goalkeeping corps to hopefully establish an outlook for the rest of the season and beyond. So let’s start by taking a much closer look at the first man to don the #1 jersey for the Red Bulls since Frank Rost (!) in 2011.
Brought in from the Eredivisie’s FC Utrecht for what was probably a big ol’ stack of TAM, David Jensen’s resume boasts a handful of caps at U-21 level for Denmark, along with some Europa League experience from his time in the Netherlands. Initially becoming a bit of a minor meme on RBNY Twitter as a result of his man-sized baby, and his affinity for headwear, it would be safe to say that performance-wise, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag so far from the big Dane.
I’ll begin with the positives. I think the single most apparent quality that Jensen has shown has been his shot-stopping ability, something which undoubtedly owes itself not only to his large frame, but also, his athletic ability. Indeed, being rather agile in spite of his size has already helped Jensen establish a propensity for a highlight reel save, with this save to deny Adam Jahn in the dying minutes of RBNY’s COVID Chalice opener against Atlanta probably being the pick of the lot so far.
While the demands of the modern game have resulted in goalkeepers being expected to do much more than just make saves, the limitations of rostering a goalkeeper that is only good at stopping shots are generally much less pronounced at MLS level than they are in Europe’s top leagues. Indeed, considering the fact that Luis Robles has been considered one of MLS’ top goalkeepers over the past five years despite woeful passing and goal kicks, you can still do pretty well for yourself in this league by pure virtue of being super athletic and making a ton of stops.
This is also especially true of a system like RBNY’s where there’s not as much of an onus for a goalkeeper to facilitate buildup from the back as you may see in more possession-oriented tactical setups. As such, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if Jensen’s primary quality as a player is his shot stopping ability, as that would already put him in quite a decent place relative to the rest of the league.
It’s also his size and athleticism that gives him an advantage in one-on-one situations, which is something that I think is particularly important in context of a counterpressing team like RBNY. Since the institution of the press in 2015 under Jesse Marsch, we’ve seen a litany of teams attempting to sucker punch the Red Bulls by playing a long ball over the top to a forward streaking into the space left behind the high defensive line that has generally been deployed by the team. This subsequently results in the opposition forward finding themselves in a favorable one-on-one situation to convert. RBNY’s system results in the team having a higher than average potential for one-on-one situations to develop, which makes the ability to know when to come off the goal line to engage in duels with onrushing attackers highly pertinent for anyone manning the posts for New York. Jensen I think has shown a pretty decent knack for dealing with one-on-ones, as perhaps best highlighted by this stop in the first half against Jürgen Locadia in the 1-0 loss to Cincinnati after the FCC striker was played in behind the defense by (surprise) a long ball over the top. This can be found at 1:01 of the following video:
Here, you can see once again how Jensen’s athleticism assists him in responding to the wide touch Locadia takes in an attempt to round him. Thanks to his large strides and agility, he’s able to recover quickly and stay relatively square to the ball despite being off-balance after Locadia takes his first touch. As a result, Locadia recognizes that he’s not going to get the space that he wants to round the goalkeeper, and ends up attempting a quick, low drive to the near post. Jensen does well to react to this sudden decision to shoot, relying on his agility once again to get down quickly to make the stop despite backpedaling, and ends up safely palming the ball out of play for an FCC corner.
That being said, for goalkeepers, athleticism can be something of a double-edged sword. While being blessed with natural athletic talent and fantastic reflexes does indeed assist in helping one make all kinds of audacious saves, relying too much on it tends to result in the onset of some bad habits and/or deficiencies in important fundamentals such as footwork and positioning. This brings me to some of the less than stellar attributes that Jensen has exhibited, which is namely his struggles dealing with crosses. It is perhaps ironic for a big man (Jensen is 6’5”) to excel at getting down quickly but be poor at dealing with aerial threats, but it’s also not something particularly new to the New York Red Bulls cinematic universe - I’m looking at you, Evan Louro.
One potential hypothesis as to why this is could be rooted in an aggravating habit that is not uncommon among other athletically-blessed goalkeepers. You know how a center fielder that runs bad routes has to end up making tons of wonder catches to catch fly balls? It’s a bit like that. Goalkeepers that don’t position themselves well in anticipation of crosses have to make tons of wonder saves to make up for it. This is something I like to call Shay Given’s disease, and I think Jensen suffers from it. Indeed, it is notable that a couple of his own highlights this season have been the direct result of him scrambling to respond in time to shots off of crosses that he was not in a good position to deal with. The save he made off of Justin Meram in the 49th minute of the game away at RSL comes to mind, which oddly enough, is probably more indicative of this than any of his perceived misadventures off of FCC set pieces this year.
Another possible reason for the Dane’s struggles in the air thus far is that they could be the result of someone who is still in the process of adapting to the tendencies of a much more physical league. Indeed, just as how goalkeepers such as David de Gea have struggled with the increased physicality of the Premier League upon moving to England from a continental European league, you cannot discount something similar happening to someone moving from the Eredivisie to MLS. After all, many a foreign import has sounded off on the much more physically demanding nature of MLS compared to their league of origin, which lends some credence to this idea. It shouldn’t be understated how much an uptick in physicality can affect a goalkeeper’s decision making on crosses, as it entails things such as opposition forwards being more willing to contest more crosses in general, or opposing teams packing more bodies in and around the six-yard box than one might be used to.
On top of this, you have to factor in that Jensen is probably also in the midst of learning the tendencies of his defenders as well, something that plays a significant role in a goalkeeper’s assessment of when to take charge of a situation. All of these have a substantial impact on a goalkeeper’s decision making, which Jensen will undoubtedly have to recalibrate going forward to suit his new surroundings. One incident that I think further supports this is FCC’s second goal in their 2-0 victory over RBNY earlier this year, where Jensen struggled to deal with the physical disruption posed by Caleb Stanko off a corner, leading to him being unable to react in time to the glancing blow off of Florian Valot’s head at the near post.
While you could argue that he probably wasn’t going to be able to react in time regardless of whether Stanko was getting in his face or not, Jensen getting thrown off by this kind of (clears throat) shithousery had the look and feel of someone who is not quite accustomed yet to dealing with more physically disruptive opponents, which is something that he is going to learn how to deal with if he wants to truly establish himself in the league.
So where do we go from here? Well, for one, let’s get this straight. It is most definitely still way too early to be saying that Jensen is a wash. This is especially true of a season as bizarre as this one’s been, with the long disruption in the first half of the year probably not doing a world of good to a player trying to learn the nuances of a new team and a new league. While it may seem a bit odd to be talking about potential considering Jensen is just about entering his prime years at the age of 28, taking a look at what he’s flashed so far, he has shown the ability to be an excellent goalkeeper for this squad if he manages to adapt successfully to MLS. After all, tough maiden seasons in a new league are not unheard of from goalkeepers at any level, no matter how talented they are. It’s reminiscent of another time an athletically gifted Danish goalkeeper made the move to a highly physical league at the age of 27, and proceeded to draw some ire from fans of a team in red after a few high-profile errors over the course of his first season - of course that was all before Peter Schmeichel cartwheeled his way to the Champions League trophy.
Now, don’t interpret this as saying that Jensen is on Schmeichel’s level talent wise or anything ridiculous like that. If there’s anything you should take away from this analogy, it’s that sometimes, it takes a bit of time for a goalkeeper to get their bearings in a new league because of the process of getting accustomed to new opponents and new teammates. The process of adaptation occasionally results in a higher than normal amount of errors than one would like to see from someone playing a position where perfection is paramount because not everyone adapts instantly. That being said, Jensen has shown enough to suggest that his perceived struggles so far are related more to the typical trials and tribulations of adapting to a new league as opposed to a deficiency in talent. At the game’s most unforgiving position, a little bit of patience is needed for a player to learn how to adapt to new circumstances. And if history is indicative of anything, that kind of patience has been rewarded handsomely in the past.