Header photo courtesy Coastal Carolina University athletics.
With his fourth of five picks in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft, Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs moved to fill a need. NSC has just two goalkeepers on its roster, and adding a third was a major priority for the Boys in Gold. Fortunately, Nashville’s top choice, Coastal Carolina standout Tor Saunders, was still available to be selected No. 74 overall.
The 6-5, 215-pounder played four years at Akron before heading to Conway, South Carolina for his graduate transfer year. The move was a smart one: not only did it help the former Sounders Academy prospect earn a place in the MLS Draft, it was one of just a few locations where he could have participated in soccer last Fall. Only the ACC and Coastal’s Sun Belt Conference participated in the traditional fall season, and Saunders performed well enough for the Chanticleers to earn some Sun Belt honors.
Those were well deserved, according to Coastal head coach Shaun Docking.
“We played in the Fall: he started every game for us, and was the conference tournament MVP in the Fall,” Docking explained. “We ended up winning the [Sun Belt] semifinal 6-0, and then we won the final 0-0 and it went to PKs. I think he made two saves i the PKs, so he ended up being the tournament MVP. Not conceding a goal in the whole conference tournament, it was very well-deserved.”
Saunders boasted a save percentage of .861 in the seven-game slate, and allowed just 0.6 goals per game. Playing every minute between the pipes, he was a key part of his team’s success. A big part of his contribution was the simple intimidating figure he posed, taking up massive portions of the net.
“Well as a goalkeeper, he’s a big 6-foot-5,” Docking said with a smile. “He’s a great leader – he’s been one of our captains for us this year. Good organizer, very strong presence in goal, very commanding. He’s good on crosses, good shot-stopper, good with his feet. So he’s a good all-round goalkeeper. I think being 6-foot-5 is definitely going to help him because it’s a very athletic and physical league. I think he’s got a bright future in the game. He knows he’s got to keep working at it, but yeah, he’s going to be a good addition, I think.
He’s not just about size, though. Docking may run out of time to talk if he were to list everything he likes about his graduate-transfer keeper.
Whether that’s pure shot-stopping ability, or the contributions he can make with his feet as a ball-handling modern keeper, there’s a lot to like about what Saunders can bring to Nashville SC. What may be most notable about him is that he hasn’t yet honed a standout specialty to his style. That will come with time as he continues to work as a professional, and may follow a bit of an adjustment to the MLS speed and style of play, as well.
Docking has no doubt Saunders has the room in his game for that growth.
“I think in order to play at the MLS level, you’ve got to be a very well-rounded goalkeeper,” he said of his star pupil. “You can certainly have strengths, but I think to play at that level, you’ve got to be very good at everything, and then be excellent, perhaps, at one or two things. He’s very good in a lot of different areas. I know when those guys get him, they’ll be able to analyze his game a little bit and develop him for that level. I think they’ve got a good starting position with him in terms of what he brings to the game already.
“Obviously, everything is happening faster than the college level: shots are coming at you stronger and harder and quicker, crosses are coming at you quicker. The physicality of the players in and around the goalkeeper is going to be bigger. The shots are coming at you quicker – you’ve just got less time to think and operate. I don’t think he’ll have a problem adjusting to that speed fo play probably after a month or two of being there, of being with the club. Hopefully he’ll get caught up to speed pretty quickly.”
Saunders’s college career isn’t quite done yet, though. With their performance in the Fall, the Chanticleers have already earned a berth to this Spring’s NCAA Tournament, which (hopefully) follows a season far less affected by the coronavirus pandemic than those that have pushed through the past 12 months. The Chants have a seven-game “regular” season scheduled to ramp up to the NCAAs.
Saunders – at the direction of both his college and future pro coaches – will stick with CCU until the conclusion of their season. The hope is that lasts all the way to College Cup in mid-May.
“We’ve set up a series of about 10 games prior to that for our spring season,” Docking said. “We spoke to Nashville, and Tor is going to be playing for us still in the Spring, because they want him to get good meaningful games and end up playing and competing at that level. So he’s training with us every day, and he’ll be playing in the games, so we’re excited about it. He’ll play in the NCAA Tournament for us, and will be joining Nashville once it finishes.”
The Boys in Gold will be excited to have a mid-season reinforcement as they look to both the present and the future during the 2021 campaign.