Brad Knighton, then of the Carolina Railhawks, comes out off his line to challenger Brian Shriver of the NSC Minnesota Stars in the second round of the North American Soccer League playoffs. (Jeremy Olson/DigitalGopher.net)
Knighton, who turns 27 in February, spent last year with the Carolina Railhawks of the North American Soccer League under head coach Martin Rennie. With Knighton in goal the Railhawks did well defensively most of the season but struggled down the stretch and eventually gave up a playoff four-spot to the NSC Minnesota Stars. Knighton also played division two soccer with the Portland Timbers and has some MLS experience, with a few seasons as a depth keeper in New England and one ill-fated year starting for the expansion Philadelphia Union.
Of course new Whitecaps boss Rennie is familiar with Knighton, who he leaned upon heavily after losing Evan Bush to the Montreal Impact. Certainly, Knighton's statistics were good, as with him in goal the Railhawks just edged the Impact for best goals-against numbers in the NASL. But his uninspiring playoff performance and the way he and his defense deteriorated towards the end of the regular season raised a lot of questions; even early in the year, Knighton was being helped by an excellent back four as much as he was making excellent saves.
Knighton is presumably coming in as a player who Rennie knows he can work with, who has proven he can play goal at a good professional level, and as somebody who stays healthy and can be counted on to back up Joe Cannon. This is all fine and he's by no means a bad choice. That doesn't mean I can't question whether he's the best choice available.
I've never been enthusiastic for Knighton. Back in December, I looked at a number of options to fill Vancouver's vacant goaltending spot including Knighton. Of our latest signing I said:
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.
I haven't seen anything since then which has changed my mind. He was a good, but not a top, goalkeeper in the North American Soccer League: a half-step behind where Jay Nolly was when we brought him to MLS.
Knighton is not a bad goalkeeper. He certainly didn't allow embarrassing goals with the Railhawks and was capable of the occasional highlight-reel save. As an MLS backup, I'm certain he's going to fit the bill. By all accounts Knighton is a stand-up person who genuinely loves both soccer and fans, and had a great relationship with the Carolina supporters. If Rennie and Knighton get along very well, Knighton is coming cheap, and Rennie reckons he can rely on Knighton, then that adds up to a potentially good argument for not taking a more talented goalkeeper: when somebody isn't playing every day his biggest contributions might be in terms of personality and intelligence.
All the same, if the worst happens to Cannon while the Whitecaps are in the playoff hunt I will not sleep soundly in my bed knowing that Knighton has our back. But he has plenty of time to prove himself and I'll be the first to admit that I can't scout goalkeepers very well. I underestimated Nolly for the longest time, for example. Knighton's pre-season performances will be crucial: if the Whitecaps defense is as decent as we all think it's going to be he has the chance to exorcise some serious Philadelphia Union-related demons.