The Throw-In: The mystique of the aging 'keeper

Why do fans save special treatment for our veteran netminders?

Matt Reis, Kasey Keller, Throw-In

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Goalkeepers are a different breed. We all know that. No one else in soccer gets away with wearing head-to-toe DayGlo green.

We joke – a bit. It’s a given that ‘keepers generally ooze more personality than the average soccer player. They’re often the go-to quotes for media members, and they’re the first guys to be alternately beloved and heckled by fans.

But it goes deeper than that. Soccer culture is such that we elevate our ‘keepers to cult-like status. We revere our favorite netminders because of these things that make him different, for the simple fact that he is not your average player.

He is the player who is closest to being immortal on that pitch – the guy who is still there protecting your team’s net long after your other favorite players have called it a career, the one player on the field with a full head of gray hair (or in the case of most US legends, no hair at all).

The simple reality is that fans save special treatment for the ‘keeper. We were reminded of this during the US national team’s pair of stateside friendlies last month. Every time Tim Howard returns to American pitches, he is peppered with questions as to when he’ll make his triumphant return to Major League Soccer.

And every time he is asked, Timmy takes the bait. He repeats it is his ultimate goal to finish his career in the league where it started 13 years ago. And this will be no victory lap, he told ExtraTime Radio on Monday – he wants to return to MLS at a time when he can still be effective instead of in the twilight of his career.

As usual, the fans ate this up. Our conquering hero and World Cup legend returning to MLS? Where do we buy tickets? Fans were similarly thrilled when Kasey Keller signed with Seattle three years ago, and the Internet is abuzz with chatter of the possible returns of Marcus Hahnemann (increasingly likely) and Brad Friedel (not looking so likely).

Think about that for a second. That’s a pretty high level of enthusiasm for a quartet of guys whose average age is nearly 38. For comparison’s sake, I can’t remember a similar level of fan-boy excitement over the returns to MLS of guys like Gregg Berhalter, Eddie Lewis or Clint Mathis – players who have arguably contributed just as much over the years.

Once again, it’s a disproportionate level of respect for the timeless ‘keeper. What is it with this level of reverence we give to the guy with the big gloves?

“It all comes back to the fact that we’re all a little bit different,” says New England’s Matt Reis, perhaps proving his own point by adding, “We’re a little more outgoing and accessible to fans than most players. That usually brings the fans back to your bosom, where they suck at the teat.”

Besides providing us with horrible visuals (thanks, Matt), we all know what else ‘keepers provide: highlight-reel moments that literally determine whether your team wins or loses. No other player has that power. It’s wholly unique to the position and helps create that mystique.

And age isn’t as much of a limit at the ‘keeper position. The 36-year-old Reis is one of eight starting netminders in MLS who were born in 1976 or earlier. Think about that: One-third of the league’s starting ‘keepers will be outside the coveted 18-to-34 demographic by the end of the season. While most players are debating the merits of Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation3, these guys are knee deep in carpools and Dora the Explorer.

“A lot of guys have done well late into their age,” explains Reis of his peers. “[Pat] Onstad set the bar, and he’s still playing well at 43.”

Our ‘keepers are warriors and survivors. They’re a link back to the early days of MLS when a young generation of netminders took their licks and sat buried on the depth chart behind guys like Jorge Campos and Tony Meola. They’re guys that, in many cases – such as Onstad and Jon Busch – earned experience in lower divisions before coming to MLS literally older and wiser.

“It was a cut-throat world for keepers at that point,” recalls FC Dallas’ Kevin Hartman, who will turn 37 next month. “There were so many young guys, and not much experience between us. Now that we have it, you have this group of older guys trying to relay that to the younger generation.”

But that older generation just can’t seem to go away. Retirement didn’t even take for Onstad, who was forced into emergency duty for D.C. United mere months into his new gig as an assistant coach.

And that does even more for the ‘keeper mystique. Because the physical demands are so different, and because of the precedent these guys are setting, we expect them to play into their 40s. We make an exception knowing that if these guys have proven it to us again and again, we welcome them back into the fold no matter how gray or bald they’ve gotten.

It’s why we know that, even if Howard decides to return to MLS in 2014, when his Everton contract expires, we’ll still get a ‘keeper near his top form – his 35 years of age won’t be a talking point. It’s why talk of Friedel (40 next month) re-signing at Aston Villa makes us a little sad that he won’t get a long-rumored MLS swan song. And especially, it’s why Seattle fans love the idea of Hahnemann – 39 in June – stepping in to replace his own good friend and fellow Washingtonian, Keller.

“I know Marcus’ plan is to eventually move back to Seattle,” Keller told MLSsoccer.com last month. “I think he’d love to have an end to a career that I’ve had – a chance to come home and finish up. ... I know Marcus would be interested.”

That’s a job, of course, for Sounders management, which Keller is quick to point out. But it sure sounds like one former US national-teamer is flying the flag for another. Name me another sport where one follically challenged future Hall of Famer can name his own even balder successor – and the fans don’t just welcome it, they celebrate it.

No wonder these guys are so different.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.

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