Zac Lee Rigg: The psychology of a reserve goalkeeper

It takes a unique personality to want to play in goal. So what to make of the lot that earn a living as backup goalkeepers?
Goalkeepers are crazy. Sane humans, when facing flying objects fired at roughly the speed of freeway traffic, duck. Keepers actively hurl their bodies – arms, legs, torsos, faces, whatever – into the trajectory of whizzing, spinning, zipping balls.

So imagine how mentally unsound reserve goalkeepers must be – sitting the bench, patiently or anxiously or frustratedly waiting for a chance to let grown men kick things at them. Training and gearing up as if they will start.

"You've got to know that your number can be called in any game and you've got to prepare like that," Chivas USA goalkeeper Dan Kennedy said.

It's stressful, he noted. Preparing every training session and every pre-match as if you are going to play and then . . . just waiting. But goalkeepers, as delightfully deranged as they are, take it well – optimistically even.

"I've always had the same approach – put your head down and work hard and hopefully good things will happen," Columbus Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum told

Goalkeepers are also unique in how exclusive the position is. Field players can earn minutes through tactical shuffles or substitutions. Goalies play one position and they usually play it every game unless hurt.

So when Gruenebaum went into the 2012 season – having adjusted his diet and fitness routine to bring his body to peak physical shape – looking to earn the starting spot, it had to come at the expense of the incumbent, Will Hesmer. Hesmer was a fringe U.S. international who anchored the Crew to the 2008 MLS Cup.

"Basically, I've been a backup for six years," Gruenebaum said. Twice he's played 10 games in a season due to injuries to Hesmer. Other than that, he's seen precious little time. "I wanted to push him to the brink, if not win the job outright. Unfortunately, he had to go under the knife anyways, so I just welcome the opportunity to play a full season."

A couple days into the season, Hesmer, underwent micro-fracture surgery on his right hip. He's spent part the year interning at a wealth-management firm, according to the Columbus Dispatch, and only returned to light training last week. His setback, which was potentially career-ending, turned into Gruenebaum's gain.

"I'm not getting any younger," Gruenebaum, 29, said. "I wanted to actually make a name for myself and not just sit on the bench for another year."

Well, he wanted to make a positive name for himself. Until this year, in which Gruenebaum has made 32 starts and leads the league in saves, the Kansas City-native was known as the first MLS goalkeeper to concede to another 'keeper in open play. In 2008, New York Red Bulls 'keeper Danny Cepero blasted the ball up field, which took an awkward bounce on the Giants Stadium turf, spun agonizingly over the backtracking Gruenebaum and into the net.

(Quirkily, the second MLS goalkeeper to score from open play is Hesmer, who slotted home from a corner kick almost exactly two years later.)

"It really doesn't bother me," Gruenebaum said of Cepero's goal. "The first week it happened I was pretty devastated. I try not to have a lot of things get to me. You have to have a short memory as a goalkeeper."

Now, he says, his friends tease him about it. He'll check his fantasy football roster to find his opponent for the week using a picture of Cepero.

Four years on, it's clear that the goal, or his six years riding the pine, didn't shake Gruenebaum's confidence.

"I always felt like I could be a starter," Gruenebaum said.

Ditto Kennedy.

"I always thought all I needed was a chance," Kennedy said. "If I got a fair chance then I thought I could prove myself just fine."

Chivas USA drafted the Southern California native in 2005, but he had to earn a chance in MLS. He dipped down to the USL for two years with the Puerto Rico Islanders before spending a season at Municipal Iquique. Kennedy didn't even know Spanish when he joined the Chilean second division side.

"I learned a little bit in Puerto Rico the first two years I played there," Kennedy said. "But once I got to Chile I had to learn it. I had to learn it."

Even when his hometown club called him back in 2008, the path to a starting spot wasn't straightforward. Just as he earned the nod over Zach Thornton that season, a red card ruled him out of the playoffs. Injuries and Thornton's late career revival kept him away from the starting gloves until 2011.

Now, at 30, he's an MLS All-Star and is second in the league in saves.

The wait was worth it. For others, it never pans out. Cepero bounced around the lower leagues and on loans before retiring at 27.

Still, given the peculiar nature of goalkeepers, they probably wouldn't complain too much either way.

"There's a reason I've been doing this all my life: because I love it and it's fun," Gruenebaum said.

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