We’ve already taken a look at the wings, so let’s delve into the goalkeepers. The Boys in Gold have three keepers from very different points in their careers. Joe Willis is the heady veteran, Adrian Zendejas the hotshot prospect getting close to “produce or it’ll never happen” territory, and Elliot Panicco is the fresh-faced college lad. Let’s take a look at them.
We’ll look at all MLS performance from Nashville SC keepers, because Zendejas’s sample size is… rather low.
Willis… was pretty much middle-of the pack. Zendejas’s save percentage looks outstanding, but that performance came in one (1) MLS performance, the first of his career. He also has appeared in the US Open Cup with SKC, but certainly the sample size we have here is not particularly robust.
So, Willis was barely below-average in his performances for Houston (G/xG=1 being our average, yes?). He didn’t face the most rubber per-game, though he was on the higher end for keepers who played a lot. For what it’s worth, I had Houston’s opponent-adjusted expected goals against as baaaarely better than average (enough that we could say they were essentially dead average), and their opponent-adjusted goals against as comfortably below average. How you want to assign blame there can go in a few different buckets:
- The keeper (obviously the notable bucket for our purposes)
- The defense (without a broader dataset – and honestly, probably some anecdotal discussion to determine how important the difference actually is)
- Luck (this plays a huge role in soccer generally, and is a massive piece of comparing GA to xGA)
It appears that Willis was basically an average goalkeeper playing in front of an average defense. That’s… largely been the case throughout his career.
Worth noting that he’s faced the greatest number of shots in his career in three of the past four years, but that also came with his highest level of playing time: aside from when he was mostly Tyler Deric’s backup in 2017, three of the past four seasons have seen him get the most minutes of his career.
As you can see, he was largely worse with DC United (2011 season with all of three appearances excepted) than he has been when getting consistent playing time with Houston.
The primary question about his overall ability to perform probably boils down to the defense in front of him: he’s going to be pretty close to league-average, with sliiiightly more evidence that he’ll be just below it. If you give opponents low-quality shots (and Nashville is building its team around a solid defense first and foremost, for sure), he’ll make the saves asked of him. It’s unlikely he’s going to go out and win games single-handedly like a Luis Robles.
The really low sample size above notwithstanding, we don’t have a ton of information about Zendejas at the MLS level. What we have from USL in 2019 is not particularly promising!
Without Expected Goals numbers available, we have to operate on a fairly rudimentary basis and go with save percentage. Zendejas’s was bad! Third-worst among keepers who played at least as many minutes as he did is pretty discouraging!
Of course, that’s where the lack of advanced numbers comes into play: Sporting KC was generally awful last year, and while Zendejas didn’t exactly lift the team by its bootstraps (indeed, he wasn’t as solid as position-mate Eric Dick, though he did out-perform options 3-5 for Swope). Anecdotally, the xG on goals given up by Swope were probably pretty high, because they were giving up golden chances on the regular.
He’s been about average in the past:
…and I would expect that level of performance to be the minimum expectation. He’s still young enough that improvement is in his future – and it’s seeming like a change in scenery (and opportunity) could be the right thing for him.
Mike Jacobs talked this guy up as the best keeper in college last year, and that was not just hyperbole. There may be a couple other candidates, but based on save percentage (again, with the understanding of its flaws), Panicco was right up there with the best:
Playing in Conference-USA – one of the stronger men’s soccer conferences, even though you may consider it a mid-major from a football or basketball perspective – only underscores how impressive those numbers actually are.
What it all means
Unless Sporting KC was just a horrible fit for Zendejas, or Panicco comes in more ready for the pro game than anyone expected, Nashville isn’t likely to have the best keeper in MLS this season. However, I don’t think that’s the worst thing. General Manager Mike Jacobs has been pretty clear in the past about where Willis is in his career arc.
“I think when you look at the age of guys like Adrian, and look at the age of Elliot, I think as Joe approaches the twilight of his career, we’ve got two goalkeepers who really can kind of evolve into our future for the next 10 years,” he said.
That sounds like a situation where you get the heady veteran on a cheap price, hoping he’s as good as he has been in the past – but not needing him to be any better than that.
Nashville is going to build its team around a solid defensive effort in front of the keeper, and if NSC can have a top-10 xG defense in the league (perhaps optimistic, of course), it’s fair to say they’ll be pretty close to top-10 in goals against, as well. The idea is to not have to rely on a keeper – or they’d have gone out and gotten one of the Luis Robleses of the world.
A keeper who’s slightly above-average and two young prospects behind him will be the goal here, with the defense in front preventing them from getting too exposed.
Adrian Zendejas photo courtesy Sporting Kansas City