So you’ve signed a keeper, eh? What have you won? Connor Sparrow comes to Nashville SC from Real Salt Lake, where he’s spent most of the past three years as a backup (with some time at their USL affiliate). Here’s the statistical output:
2016: Two appearances for Monarchs, eight shots faced and five goals allowed (37.5% save%). Subbed out after 70 minutes (and two goals conceded) in one of the games, the other was a full 90 allowing three goals.
2017: Joined RSL from the Monarchs, but spent most of his time with the USL club. 20 games played, 78.8% saves on 85 shots faced. Seven clean sheets. Nine catches, eight punch-outs, four penalties saved(!), and 26 clearances. 63.6% of his passes were long (Monarchs were not playing out of the back much), and he had only seven incomplete passes that were not longballs all year. Didn’t commit a foul all year – was fouled four times – but picked up one yellow card, presumably for time-wasting or dissent.
2018: Promoted to No. 2 keeper for RSL, but was eventually passed by Andrew Putna and didn’t see the field for Salt Lake in MLS action. Due to his duties with the parent club, got only nine games for Monarchs. 83.3% saves on 42 shots faced. Four clean sheets. Two catches on crosses, seven punched out. 13 clearances. Maintained his overall passing success with an improvement on long passes to 35%. He played in one US Open Cup game for RSL.
The Monarchs finished fourth in the West this season, first in 2017, and 11th in 2016. He did have the best rate of clean sheets this year (four in nine matches) of any keeper on the Monarchs’ roster.
He’s a college guy who was selected in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft after one year at University of Missouri-Kansas City and three at Creighton. His senior year did see the Blue Jays make the Elite Eight behind the No. 21 goals-against average in the country, with his 73.6% save percentage playing a big role in that.
Salt Lake was excited about his potential when they signed him from the USL squad.
“Connor has put in the work. We saw potential in him coming out of college and he’s done everything we’ve asked to help his own development and help the Monarchs be successful,” RSL General Manager Craig Waibel said. “We are proud of what he has done to this point and look forward to seeing his continued growth.”
Let us go to the film. There’s no Sparrow-specific highlight reel, so here’s a Monarchs game in which he made five saves, including one of those penalty kicks noted above:
It appears his positioning in his frame (and instinct of when to come off his line – or at least the confidence to make that decision and stick to it) were areas for improvement – don’t forget this is a couple years back. His command of his defense appears to be fine, as much as you can tell from a highlight reel, at least.
Most impressive, though, are his reflexes. He makes some impressive saves not because he’s doing all the little things right, necessarily, but because he has the natural talent to get the job done once the ball leaves the opponent’s foot. He guesses wrong on the penalty save (even coming off his line a little early, and diving right on an attempt that is back up the middle), but has the awareness and reaction speed to make the save nonetheless.
At 6-2, 175, he has the physical attributes (though maybe not the biggest guy out there, that’s plenty tall for the position), and given that he doesn’t turn 25 until May, that’s a lot of potential very early in the career cycle of a goalkeeper.
“Connor performed at a high level in the USL in his rookie season and comes out of the Real Salt Lake goalkeeping pipeline that has produced some of the top goalkeepers in Major League Soccer,” said Nashville SC technical director Mike Jacobs. “He is someone that we’ve tracked for some time and know that he has the potential to be a key contributor for us here in Nashville.”
You can read that last portion in a couple ways: Will he get plenty of playing time this year? Is he in the long-term (i.e. MLS) plans for the club? I would guess that both are actually true.
A talented keeper who needs technique work seems to be the right combination to play behind Matt Pickens, and given that Pickens – also the goalkeeping coach – will be 37 early in the 2018 season, there’s probably more of a role to play than was available for CJ Cochran last year (though I thought Cochran would get a little more time anyway). I thought it was odd to cut Cochran loose given the trajectory of his and Pickens’s careers, but if you sign a younger, possibly more-talented version of same (and who was on an MLS-minimum contract at $54,500 last year), it begins to make sense.
I think you could see Sparrow get upwards of 15 games this year between regular-season play and the Open Cup (Cochran got five total, plus his five starts for Fresno FC) as Pickens transitions from player-coach to coach-player. He’s a guy who they’ll want to develop with an eye toward a potential MLS signing if he works out as expected.