Coming into last season, the Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeping picture wasn't settled, but it was at least stable.
Joe Cannon and Jay Nolly would battle for the starting job; an injury to Cannon in training camp gave Nolly the opening day nod. Brian Sylvestre, a lanky 19-year-old with experience in the American U-20 program, would play USL PDL and the occasional Reserves game and learn the craft. It was a good combination which lacked front-line talent but promised both depth and good long-term prospects.
Final reviews of Whitecaps' goalies were, however, mixed. Nolly never had the confidence of Tom Soehn and was first supplanted by Cannon then traded to the Chicago Fire, depriving the Whitecaps of their one goalkeeper in his physical prime. The results for both Nolly and Cannon were decent but not spectacular, and Cannon's injuries and age make it clear he can't be unconditionally relied upon. Sylvestre might have been expected to fill the gap, but his development was badly marred by mid-season knee surgery and he played only 540 minutes in all competitions, of which 450 were at the PDL level.
The Whitecaps need another goalkeeper heading into 2012. Their depth at almost all positions is pretty poor, but one bad step by Cannon and the weakness in goal could sink them for the entire season.
Good news is that everybody in the world, including the Whitecaps organization, knows this. There's been plenty of discussion about a potential experienced goalkeeper who could platoon with Cannon going forward, and you know I'm not going to let that sort of discussion go without having my say.
The option getting the most scuttlebutt by far is Carolina Railhawks goalkeeper Brad Knighton. Knighton's an experienced 26-year-old who should carry a reasonable price tag. He had a fair to good season as Carolina's NASL starter in 2011 and Martin Rennie is familiar with him, causing him to be easily connected to Vancouver by rumour-mongers.
He isn't the goalkeeper I'd sign, though. In Carolina he got a lot of help from a strong defense that didn't allow a whole lot of tough chances. Late in the season, when the Railhawks midfield began to get worn down and expose Knighton to more pressure, he was fair but not great. Knighton also struggled mightily with the 2010 Philadelphia Union, taking their starting job out of training camp but losing it to the mediocre Chris Seitz and eventually being waived outright. Obviously, Philadelphia's defense was awful that first season but Knighton did them no favours.
Salary-wise, while Knighton would probably demand Nolly-level cash there's the possibility he falls into the Kyle Porter hole: he'd earn more starting for an NASL team than he would as a backup in salary-capped MLS (which is why Porter, whose MLS rights are still owned by the Whitecaps, spent last year with the NASL's FC Edmonton rather than riding a $32,000 off-cap spot in Vancouver). We can't take his affordability for granted.
Knighton's young enough, for a goalkeeper, that he still has room to improve. He's far from the worst possible choice and, provided Joe Cannon stays healthy and Brian Sylvestre improves through 2012, he'd be reasonable cheap cover at the $50,000 range. My point isn't that he'd be bad, but that he wouldn't be my ideal choice.
Rather than Knighton, I'd rather have an older man who's been thumping around the second division for ages, would probably be more expensive, and is just coming off a massive injury. Yes, I'm talking about Bill Gaudette, an undersized 30-year-old who missed most of last season with an ankle injury after Puerto Rico Islanders forward/human giraffe Nicholas Addlery fell on an off-balance Gaudette.
Why do I want Gaudette given his injury history, his lack of size, and his possible salary demands (Gaudette's often linked to MLS jobs but has received larger paycheques in Puerto Rico and Montreal than he would as an MLS backup; see the Porter Hole above)? Because he's brilliant: certainly better than Jay Nolly ever was, a match for the most successful second-division-turned-MLS keepers like Greg Sutton, and probably the best goalkeeper in North American second division history. Though only 6'0", Gaudette is as agile and quick as the best of them and has never shied away from making the biggest saves. He was probably USL-1's best goalkeeper in 2009, was certainly the USSF D2's best goalkeeper in 2010, and was owning the NASL until his injury.
Gaudette's last MLS go-around was with the Columbus Crew in 2007 but he did fine (though not spectacularly) while he was there; certainly better than Knighton in Philadelphia. He's an intense competitor and the sort of goalkeeper I loved to cheer again, but by all accounts he's a fine human being. I'm also hopeful that he could be a valuable resource to our young goalkeepers, particularly Callum Irving (who, like Gaudette, is a nimble but undersized shot stopper saddled with the rep that he's "too small to make it").
Rennie's never coached Gaudette but I'm certain he got to know him. I'd be delighted to welcome Gaudette to Vancouver; among the known quantities from North America he's the best choice to platoon with Cannon.
I understand being turned off by Gaudette's injury history; a backup must be reliable and if Gaudette's ankle is giving him trouble then he can't be counted upon to cover Cannon. The second-best goalkeeper in the NASL last year was, for my money, another player with a Martin Rennie connection in Evan Bush; sadly the Montreal Impact have beaten us to that punch. The third-best goalkeeper might have been Joe Warren of the NSC Minnesota Stars, but as a 37-year-old Minnesota native who's been playing with the Stars and the old Thunder for fifteen years he's unlikely to move to Canada for fifty grand a year. So who's my next pick?
26-year-old Matt Glaeser seems like an interesting backup plan to me. Glaeser was the starting goalkeeper most of the season for the NASL finalist Fort Lauderdale Strikers and has worked his way up from the bottom of the American soccer pyramid: after a promising college career he played USL PDL, got a brief look in Finland, caught on with Miami FC, and unseated second-division journeyman Nic Platter as Fort Lauderdale's starter this past season.
Glaeser isn't the greatest goalkeeper on two feet, but he's shown obvious signs of improvement which moved him towards the front rank of NASL keepers over the past year. He's big and tidy, though not the most agile, and has a reputation for a good attitude. He certainly wouldn't be too expensive, and he's the right age for a backup goalkeeper to both spell Cannon and learn the trade in hopes of becoming an MLS starter himself. Again, he wouldn't be my first choice but I'd honestly prefer Glaeser over Knighton.
Probably a better option would be a discarded MLS veteran. There's some decent goalkeeping talent on the waiver wire: former second-division Portland Timbers starter Steve Cronin will be the most familiar to Whitecaps fans, and though he was never as good a second-division player as Gaudette he's at least as good as Knighton or Glaeser. Bouna Coundoul, formerly of the New York Red Bulls, is an undeniably talented goalkeeper in the prime of his career but also reportedly an attitude case. If the Whitecaps felt like trying to hit a home run they might even try resurrecting the career of 2009 Goalkeeper of the Year Zach Thornton, although that would be insane: Thornton is 38 years old, was always in questionable physical condition, and now has a major injury on his record.
All of these players come with warts, obviously; they passed through the Re-Entry Draft for a reason. I'd shy away from Thornton because he looks finished, from Coundoul because I don't think he could handle being a backup, and the rest of the available goalkeepers are too insignificant to be worth considering. But if a quality goalkeeper's not available, I wouldn't mind seeing Steve Cronin sport #00 on the bench behind Cannon.
They may yet do something unexpected and go for a starting goalkeeper; paying a higher price but keeping Cannon as the backup. Given Cannon's perfectly adequate performance in 2011 this would be a surprise but it can't be ruled out.
I've heard Stefan Frei's name suggested by fans as a potential Whitecaps trade target: the Toronto FC goalkeeper has a few quite good MLS seasons under his belt but was injured last year and arguably outplayed by Milos Kocic. There's also the chance of getting a veteran from abroad; we all remember how Philadelphia solved their goalkeeping problems at a stroke in the short term by signing the famous Faryd Mondragon.
It seems unlikely that the Whitecaps would bring in a foreign goalkeeper to compete for the backup job: imports in MLS are just too expensive. Throughout Major League Soccer the depth goaltenders tend to be either Americans or American-trained for this exact reason.
Spending six figures improving their goalkeeping, or trading assets to get a proven MLS starter back, would be foolish given how many other positions the Whitecaps need to strengthen. However, the possibility has been discussed and should be acknowledged.
Finally, the Whitecaps could go with youth. This could be a college player from the SuperDraft, or another MLS team's prospect, or a Residency graduate. The idea of having Sylvestre and another kid battling for the backup spot gives me the willies: Cannon's had just enough injury problems over the past few years and is just old enough that I'd prefer to have someone at least slightly proven.
The 2012 MLS SuperDraft is not a good one for goalkeeping prospects; it's probable one won't even go in the first round. Sylvestre aside, Vancouver's best goalkeeping prospect is Callum Irving, who I think is a good player but who has no reputation at a national level and is still just eighteen years old. It's hard to think of any quality MLS goalkeeping prospects who could be had cheap in a trade for allocation money or somesuch.
My preference would be, in this order, for Gaudette, then Cronin, then Glaeser, then Knighton, then a trade or some classic Alec Dufty/Andrew Weber-style piece of cast-off garbage, and then kids. I wouldn't even consider trading assets for an MLS starter or inking an international for big money. This is just considering the known quantities, and if the Whitecaps have tracked down some 25-year-old Ecuadorian with starting pedigree who's willing to take $70,000 a year then by all means sign him. However, I can only analyze what I know, and from what we know the Whitecaps are looking in North America.