HOUSTON - APRIL 10: Goalkeeper Jay Nolly #18 of the Vancouver Whitecaps makes a save in front of Andrew Hainult #31 and Bobby Boswell #32 of the Houston Dynamo at Robertson Stadium on April 10, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
There was a time when I would have called myself "not a Jay Nolly fan", believe it or not.
I always thought that Nolly was a little overrated. If you asked me to list the very best goalkeepers in the second division over the last three seasons, I'm not sure I'd put Nolly on it (Steve Cronin in Portland, Bill Gaudette in Puerto Rico, usually Matt Jordan in Montreal, and sometimes Eric Reed in Carolina, but no Nolly). He was a great reflex goalkeeper in my books but one with a few flaws: absolutely lousy distribution that's cost the Vancouver Whitecaps goals on both ends of the field as well as hard hands which lead to him missing or spilling the occasional ball. He made good decisions on the field, he rose to big occasions well, and he had a chance of stopping most shots: I quite liked Nolly as a goalkeeper. But I definitely rated him less than most observers, who made Nolly the Whitecaps' most valuable player two years running and an all-league goalkeeper in 2010. To me, Nolly was a slightly poor man's Greg Sutton. He was fine, but you could do better.
Heading into the 2011 season, it seemed that Nolly would be the backup to MLS veteran Joe Cannon, acquired in the expansion draft. And so he was, at first, and everybody was okay with that. But then Cannon hurt his ankle in the preseason and Nolly has more-or-less taken over, resting only one game when his shoulder was hurt and Cannon played in Philadelphia. Perhaps more than any individual Whitecap, Nolly's taken a tongue-lashing as the team's fortunes have slumped in recent weeks. The 29-year-old second division veteran is playing for a team that concedes a tonne of goals while a 36-year-old two-time MLS goalkeeper of the year sits on the bench, seemingly healthy.
And, actually, I'm still not a huge Nolly fan. But replacing him with Cannon will not solve this team's problems.
The easiest case to make against Nolly is the statistical. In five games, Nolly has conceded thirteen goals for a 1.86 goals-against average; pretty good for hockey but in soccer that's Jake Gleeson territory. He has just one clean sheet against thoroughly mediocre Chivas USA. Of course, in soccer, goalkeeper numbers depend hugely on the quality of the defending and nobody will pretend that Vancouver's defending has been any good; Nolly just makes a convenient scapegoat. And he's been in the highlights for the wrong reasons: getting beat by Will Bruin trying to chase down the young Houston Dynamo starlet, letting the ball go through his hands against the Columbus Crew and then, later, giving away a penalty.
The other criticisms are less tangible. Nolly is a poor communicator, leading to the team's poor record on set pieces. This seems like a bloody odd thing to accuse Nolly of, given that there's hardly a clip of him without his mouth open, re-arranging his defense in one way or another. I'd suggest the reasons this team has struggled on set pieces are mainly down to two facts. First, set pieces are, more than any other part of the defensive game in soccer, down to team work and familiarity with your comrades. Second, the injuries have forced this team to get incredibly creative with their defensive lineups. Alain Rochat is a tremendous player but he's also a native left back with fairly negligible ability in the air forced outside of his comfort zone. If he blows coverage on a corner kick, as he has a few times this season, it's hardly Nolly's fault that Rochat is essentially learning a new position in a new league on the job. Michael Boxall is big, a great jumper, and a future everyday player in this league, but right now this is by far the highest level he's ever played at and sometimes it shows. Blake Wagner sucks and that shows too. It's impossible to defend set pieces well with a back four like that; you could have Jose Mourinho on the bench and Lev Yashin in goal and you still wouldn't be able to do it.
Similarly, I'm not quite sure to make of this other criticism: that Nolly makes bad decisions. I can think of two times when Nolly clearly and unequivocally did the wrong thing: brutally giving the ball away before Teal Bunbury's late second-half goal against Sporting Kansas City and the aforementioned run-out against Columbus that, luckily, didn't lead to anything. Other than that, he's been relatively gaffe-free, and two botches in seven games isn't an appalling figure.
When Nolly ran out of his goal to try and beat Bruin to the ball against Houston, or to try and Emilio Renteria on Saturday against Columbus, he was making the right decision. There were no defenders in sight: Nolly was going to get to that ball or nobody would. If Nolly had stayed in his goal, then the opposing forward would have been able to move and shoot at his leisure and Nolly's attackers would be whining that he's too passive. Instead, Nolly did the right thing: he bloody near got to that ball in Houston before Bruin and did beat Renteria to the ball in Columbus, only to have his efforts undone by a weak penalty call. He played both balls as well as a goalkeeper could have played them and just got unlucky. That's soccer. He couldn't have made a play that would have given him better odds.
Again, Nolly can be improved upon. His distribution, in particular, has gotten no better. I can also see the appeal of Papa Joe Cannon, who looked good in Philadelphia. But lest me forget, there's a reason why the San Jose Earthquakes exposed Cannon in the expansion draft: they were hoping we'd take him and his $200,000-odd salary off their hands. Cannon hasn't been a top-flight goalkeeper for a few years. Between injury and simple ineffectiveness, Cannon's job in San Jose was usurped by journeyman Jon Busch last season. Judging the backup goalkeeper can be very difficult since we fans just don't see the guy play enough, but in this case it's not like Cannon's record over the past few seasons is all that good.
I wouldn't object to the Whitecaps finding a stronger goalkeeper than Nolly. His old weaknesses are all there and he's not going to provide much more than league-average goalkeeping. He's not great. But if you're looking for problems with this team, Nolly is exactly the wrong place to start.