Continuity at the goalkeeping position is easy to take for granted. Clubs as big as Manchester United and Arsenal have seen recent dynasties crumble partially due to upheaval at the last line of defense. While some may bristle at the idea of the New York Red Bulls and their three Supporters Shield titles over the last decade as a dynasty per se, the club finds itself a year removed from releasing a man who was a week-in week-out presence on the team sheet for the club’s most successful era.
The scramble to replace Luis Robles over the past year has left the Red Bulls goalkeeping department somewhat bloated. Veteran backup Ryan Meara returns for his tenth season along (ostensibly) with Danish import David Jensen, while the additions of reserve standout Luca Lewis and Salzburg loanee Carlos Coronel leave the Red Bulls with a potential two-decade timeline of keepers on one depth chart. When coupled with the hiring of new goalkeeping coach Jyri Nieminen in place of long-time incumbent Preston Burpo, Red Bulls braintrust Kevin Thelwell and Gerhard Struber were clearly far from satisfied with the standard of the club’s goalkeeping situation at the close of 2020. But an even closer look shows the duo laying the foundation to evolve and hone New York’s approach to a position the club has often left as a roll of dice.
The New Boss
The most logical place to start would be to discuss the credentials of new goalkeeping coach Jyri Nieminen, as it is a move that hints at an intriguing sea change in the New York operation’s approach to the technical development of their goalkeeping corps. To give some background, Nieminen, a 33-year-old from Finland, joins Gerhard Struber’s technical staff from one of South Africa’s most storied teams, Orlando Pirates Football Club (which, for the record, is the coolest Orlando-related team name in soccer.)
In an era when middle-aged playing legends dot staffs throughout the globe, Struber has chosen to surround himself with a young, technocratic coaching staff, with Nieminen no different. He started his path as a goalkeeping coach at the tender age of 18 after realising that, at 5’9”, his chances of a professional career at the position were slim. Soon after, Nieminen (who was also recently a member of Matias Almeyda’s staff at San Jose Earthquakes) quickly obtained both the UEFA and USSF “A” goalkeeping coaching licenses and set upon an ambitious, globetrotting career as a coach. He boasts working knowledge of six different languages, along with a burgeoning reputation as an advocate for achieving both a more structured development process for players, and a higher standard of goalkeeping education for coaches.
Nieminen has also made a number of notable stops prior to joining the Red Bulls. Perhaps the most intriguing of them all is his work with the ASPIRE Academy and Qatar U-17s between 2015 to 2018. The Qatari government-backed ASPIRE Academy is part of a national team setup that closely mimics that of a conventional club outfit. Academy players are essentially earmarked future national team players who play together in a prescribed tactical system from youth all the way to senior level. The system in this case was developed by former Barcelona youth coach and Pep Guardiola acolyte Felix Sanchez Bas, the manager of the Qatari senior side. You can probably guess from the names alone just what the tactical setup entails - holistic possession play from every player on the field, including the goalkeeper. Despite the heretic nature of these methods from the perspective of a loyal energy drink soccer follower, and the somewhat sinister vibes of the Qatari football operation in general, the academy has gained plaudits from observers of Asian soccer as a major driving force behind the recent ascent of the senior Qatari outfit. After all, academy graduates such as Almoez Ali and Assim Madibo formed part of the young core that beat a mostly first choice selection from regional powerhouses Japan 3-1 to bring home Qatar’s first ever Asian Cup in 2019.
It wouldn’t be out of the realm of imagination to say that as a former youth goalkeeping coach for a program with a dogmatic tactical identity, Nieminen ticks two key criteria. One is obviously the ability to nurture young talent in general, supporting the Red Bulls’ push to become much younger under Kevin Thelwell’s stewardship. The other is having the nous to teach and develop goalkeeping skills that help goalkeepers fit into the wider context of a defined tactical identity. To excuse a bit of psychology, this may be something Nieminen could excel at because of his height, rather than in spite of it, as being made painfully aware of one’s own limitations may allow him to pick up on details that goalkeepers at more conventional heights generally take for granted.
Nieminen’s well-traveled career at the cutting edge of the goalkeeping craft is a sharp contrast from the previous holder of the position Preston Burpo, an old teammate of Jesse Marsch’s who used a role with the Red Bulls to break into coaching rather than apply proven skills. It’s clear from Nieminen’s hire that the top brass expect the goalkeeping corps to be more deeply-integrated with the demands of the team’s tactics going forward through the development of the relevant technical skills. Judging from some soundbites that were released around the time of his hiring, it is apparent that Gerhard Struber seems to be relying on him to do exactly that, with Struber cited the Finn’s “future-oriented approach” as a key reason for his appointment in driving the development of “all of the team’s goalkeepers.”
When you consider his youth coaching credentials along with previously indicated desire to achieve higher standards of goalkeeping education, it could very well be that Nieminen’s role will not just be limited to day-to-day training of the team’s senior goalkeepers, like it was with Preston Burpo. Indeed, it’s possible that he was hired to also establish a goalkeeping development structure and curriculum to be prescribed at every level of the RBNY organization to guide the development of playing and coaching talent equipped with the necessary skills and expertise to succeed in the Red Bull system. Interestingly enough, Nieminen’s LinkedIn profile has his official title set as First Team Goalkeeping Coach and Head of Goalkeeping a title perhaps implying the Finn has been granted a broader scope of work than one would typically expect from a conventional goalkeeping coach.
The New Kid
Now we can move on to the folks vying for the right to be the one wearing the gloves for the 2021 Red Bulls. Let’s begin with the new kid on the block. Perhaps the buzziest move in the goalkeeping department this offseason from a playing personnel standpoint, 24-year old Brazilian Carlos Miguel Coronel joins RBNY on loan with an option to buy from Austrian sister club, Red Bull Salzburg. Coronel is a name that will be familiar to both watchers of MLS and the Red Bull Global network alike, having previously spent time stateside on loan with RB Global’s less formal American affiliate, Philadelphia Union, in 2019. More notably however, Coronel is also a name that will be familiar to manager Gerhard Struber from their time together at FC Liefering in 2017 and 2018, with Coronel cementing a starting position for Salzburg’s reserve side underneath Struber’s tutelage.
It is perhaps this prior familiarity and Coronel’s continued burial on Salzburg’s depth chart behind Cican Stankovic and Alexander Walke that compelled Struber to reunite with his former charge in the United States. Struber’s past familiarity with Coronel, the option to buy on top of his loan, and the full 90 minutes he played in this past weekend’s friendly against DC United all suggest that the Brazilian, who has game experience at UEFA Champions League level, will start the season as first choice starter in New York.
But what does he offer to the team? As outlined previously, RBG goalkeepers have tended to be athletic shot stoppers who must be highly adept at playing behind a high defensive line that is aggressively compressing the opponent’s half of the field. The propensity to press high up the field tends to leave RBG goalkeepers in a higher than average amount of one-on-one situations for them to handle, making excellence in these situations key.
For the most part, Coronel fits this archetype, and then some. The Brazilian is probably the closest thing you are possibly going to get to a pure Red Bull goalkeeping specimen, having spent his youth career with Red Bull Brasil prior to moving to Salzburg shortly before his 20th birthday. His highlights on Wyscout make his shot stopping expertise particularly apparent. Coronel’s quick lateral movement, recovery and agility allow him to make some absolutely breathtaking stops, sometimes in quick succession, as was evidenced in the club’s preseason finale against DC United last Saturday. He also seems to know how to use his frame to his advantage (Coronel is 6’4”) in one-on-one situations, taking up good positions to close down shot angles and pressure attackers into firing shots straight into his body.
The numbers (sorry) do seem to back this claim up to an extent. Wyscout has Coronel pegged at a career rate of 1.16 goals conceded per game versus an expected conceded goal (xCG) rate of 1.29 over a sample size of 8286 minutes. According to American Soccer Analysis’ statistical records for MLS goalkeepers with at least 1200 minutes played in 2020, 1.16 goals conceded is good enough to be ranked 4th best in the league, while his -0.13 goals conceded versus expected goals conceded differential (G-xCG) is good enough for 7th. This is basically just a really convoluted way of saying that he is allowing less goals than he has otherwise been expected to concede over the course of his career as a result of his shot stopping ability.
It’s also encouraging (given Nieminen’s tactical background noted above) that he has a career long pass completion rate of 56.1% at an average rate of 6.7 attempts per 90 minutes, indicating a good level of accuracy with his kicks. For context, Alisson, who many would consider to be one of the best in the world at long ball distribution, has a career rate of 61.8% from 4.47 attempts per game. The ability to fire off accurate long kicks for the opposition to deal with is a key method of creating the 50/50 situations that trigger the high press, which is probably the most significant ask of a goalkeeper in the Red Bull system from a distribution standpoint. It should be noted however, that Coronel’s general lack of significant playing time up until this point of his career is a major confounding variable, so, as always, the best thing to do is to just watch the damn games and draw your own conclusions.
The footage does reveal some potential pitfalls to Coronel’s game for us to be aware of however, with his handling of the ball being of particular concern. The Brazilian stopper has displayed some inconsistency in his ability to catch balls cleanly off of shots or crosses, which has previously resulted in juicy rebound situations for opposition attackers to capitalize on. It’s also notable that his spotty ball catching has resulted in a notable tendency to opt to punch instead of catch in aerial duels. As a rule of thumb, punching the ball instead of catching should ideally only be done as a last resort, as punches are more likely to generate second chances, or chaotic goalmouth scrambles for your defense to deal with. Truly, if the much-memed success of Tony Pulis’ Stoke is anything to go by, you want to have as little chaos inside your own penalty box as possible, which makes this propensity to punch a bit concerning in my view.
One other thing to look out for is how he adapts mentally to the toil that comes with potentially playing games week in week out after years of inconsistent minutes. It is something that can’t ever truly be measured, but learning to deal with the rollercoaster of emotions that come with the heightened scrutiny and expectations of a weekly starting spot is an important mental tenet for goalkeepers to adopt, especially for relatively untested players like Coronel.
All told, however, I do think that the ideal number one in goal for the Red Bulls should be someone of Coronel’s profile: a young goalkeeper with some pedigree that is looking to take the next step of his career. On the grounds of his potential, and fit for the system, I do think that he should be the one getting the first nod for reps between the sticks this season, which is why I currently have him pinned as my personal number one on the depth chart.
The Old Hand
It could really have been a lot different for Ryan Meara. After bursting on the scene fresh out of Fordham University as RBNY’s pick in the first round of the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, the Yonkers native’s stellar rookie year was curtailed following a season-ending hip injury. The Red Bulls signed an almost-real estate agent named Luis Robles as cover, and he went on to not miss a league game for the next five years. The now 30-year-old Meara, who early in his career trained and was nearly capped with the Ireland national team, has spent the last decade mostly relegated to US Open Cup appearances and stints in USL with Red Bull II.
That being said, there’s not a lot left that we don’t know about Meara, and in many ways he is a posterchild for New York’s previous approach to the position. Calm and composed on the field, Meara rarely puts a foot wrong, and is arguably the most aerially adept of the current goalkeeper corps when it comes to claiming corners and crosses despite his wiry frame. While perhaps not as athletically gifted as some of his peers, what Meara lacks in natural athleticism, he more than makes up for in positioning and decision making, allowing him to make comfortable-looking saves with little to no fuss. Solid-if-unspectacular describes Meara to a tee, which is most definitely not a knock against him at all, considering that goalkeeper is a position that draws a significant portion of its value from mitigating risk.
It is this quiet consistency after all that helped him ultimately depose David Jensen as the starter in goal towards the end of the 2020 season following some increasingly erratic performances from the Dane. Meara’s underlying numbers (sorry again for using stats) support the idea that he had a fine season indeed. According to American Soccer Analysis once again amongst goalkeepers with at least 1200 minutes played in 2020, Meara’s average goals conceded per game of 1.24 was 4th best, with a G-xCG of -0.19 also being good for 4th best in the league.
So if Meara is known to be a safe pair of hands that can perform at a consistently solid level in MLS, why is it that the team is continuing to bring in goalkeepers to challenge for the number one spot? The answer appears simply to be an inability to stay healthy over the course of a full season. Having missed at least a month due to injury in virtually every season of his professional career, Meara’s injury proneness almost certainly necessitates that you will need to have someone filling in for him at some point during the season. The additional context that he’s pretty much a finished product at this point that warrants giving additional minutes to developing a younger talent. And after all, having Meara, who has hitherto been known as one of the best backup goalkeepers in MLS, as a fallback is a rather luxurious position to be in.
The Odd Man Out
If there’s anything that can be said about the Danish shot stopper’s 2020, it’s that the idea of David Jensen ended up being a lot more appealing than the reality of David Jensen. Signed in the winter of 2020, and boasting experience in continental European competition to go along with a handful of appearances at youth international level, Jensen performed well enough in preseason to earn the nod for the starter’s spot to start the season. As has been detailed at length previously, the former Denmark youth international’s maiden season on the banks of the Passaic River was decisively mixed. Initially winning the hearts of some with some big saves and a penchant for wearing headgear while manning the posts,
Jensen’s season took a rather drastic turn for the worst following the re-commencement of the 2020 season. After making a show-stopping save to preserve a 1-0 win against Atlanta United in the MLS is Back Tournament, a string of less than illustrious moments followed, such as the olimpico corner kick goal he conceded against Cincinnati. This resulted in heightened scrutiny on the quality of his performances and Jensen was eventually knocked down for the count following a 2-1 loss to Inter Miami where he conceded a free kick goal to the Pier40 pickup physique of Gonzalo Higuain. The Great-ish Dane was relegated to the bench thereafter, and spent the rest of the season riding the pine behind Meara.
While yours truly is on record as rating Jensen’s raw talent and believes he should be given a chance at retribution this year, with all that’s transpired this offseason, it’s difficult to see a way back into the matchday squad for him. He was not in Florida with the rest of the first team for preseason training, and has gone on record saying that he probably would not have signed for the club if he knew of the pandemic beforehand. This draws the portrait of a man who seems to be on the outside looking in, who is also perhaps considering ways of being reunited with his young family back in Europe. Purportedly on a rather sizeable salary, and with heavy smoke emanating that the Red Bulls are looking to bring in Celtic striker Patryk Klimala, Jensen seems one of the more logical candidates to be moved to open up the requisite space in the event of an additional international signing late in preseason. In any event, it would be surprising if Jensen contributes to the first team in any meaningful way this season.