FC Cincinnati’s training session has been over for almost 30 minutes, and the humidity is climbing on the Gettler Stadium turf. Yet in front of goal stands FCC goalkeeper coach Jack Stern, fully equipped with gloves as outfield players get some extra practice in. Sem de Wit and Emmanuel Ledesma are among those taking shots, Ledesma launching a header at close range.
During training, Stern doesn’t hesitate to jump in while training his three goalkeepers — Evan Newton, Spencer Richey and Mark Village. He’ll fire shots at his keepers from just outside the penalty box, then rotate in and be on the receiving end.
Stern says he’s active during training so he can better monitor the workload he’s established. He doesn’t want to put his keepers through a workout he isn’t prepared to do either. He helps afterward so he can experience what the outfield players go through and to give his keepers a break.
“If I’m helping out with shots at the end, I enjoy it,” Stern said when he finished the extra training last week. “I’ll never not enjoy it. But it’s also another way I can help the team. If I can help Manu Ledesma at the end because he wants to shoot for 45 minutes, then that would be too much for some of our goalkeepers to do. I’ll do that, because it’s all about helping the team.”
With Stern’s tutelage and more competition for the position, the club’s goalkeeping corps excelled for most of the USL regular season. The USL on Monday announced Newton as this season’s Golden Glove winner with a league-best 0.8 goals-against average and nine clean sheets in 20 appearances. Newton saved 56 of 72 shots on goal for a 77.8 percent success rate. He and Richey combined for 14 clean sheets this season, just three fewer than Mitch Hildebrandt accumulated in 2016 and 2017 combined.
Work with a smile
FC Cincinnati hired Stern, previously with the Montreal Impact and English Premier League side West Bromwich Albion, as its first goalkeeper coach last December. Stern’s innovative and energetic approach has made a noticeable difference in this year’s goalkeeping unit, FCC coach Alan Koch said.
“He’s a joy to have around,” Koch said. “He’s full of energy, and you want that from a goalkeeping coach. I think he thinks he’s our fourth-choice goalkeeper, which he’s not. I’d probably put an outfield player in before him if I had to.”
Stern wants his keepers to take training seriously but also to enjoy the sessions.
“I want the guys — yeah, to work hard — but to do it with a smile on their face as much as possible,” Stern said. “You don’t become a goalkeeper without loving being a goalkeeper. I try my best to display that myself — to enjoy it as much as I can at the same time as working hard and being serious.”
His sessions are oftentimes simulations that help slow the pace down in matches, Newton said.
“He has some different, innovative techniques for how he wants to coach,” Newton said. “I’ve enjoyed it — I think all three of us have enjoyed it. It’s a little different but I think it keeps it very real. He’s able to create a lot of hectic situations at practice which is very similar to games. So when we get in games, I think it helps us manage that.”
Some 2 goal work with the boys this morning. Organised chaos! Anything can happen, must be prepared to react and make quick decisions to be as effective as possible. High tempo, great fun, game relevant! 🔶🔷#FCCincy #GKunion pic.twitter.com/DXnKQRYK51
— Jack Stern (@JackSternGK) July 4, 2018
An increase in competition at the position has also been key. Hildebrandt logged all but 182 minutes with the club in his two seasons. Now there’s a different atmosphere with no one goalkeeper labeled as the starter.
“Mitch came in, and obviously we know he had a couple of big games in the (U.S.) Open Cup,” Koch said. “But this group comes here, and they push each other every single day. Evan and Spencer have been fantastic for this club. Who is our starting goalkeeper? It’s very, very difficult to say who that keeper is because they’ve both been brilliant. And Mark’s been brilliant too. If you watch him in training, he’s just as good as these guys. He pushes them every single day.”
Time has been split almost evenly this season between Newton and Richey, with Newton earning nine clean sheets in his 20 matches to Richey’s five shutouts in 13 appearances.
At one point during FC Cincinnati’s unbeaten streak, the pair went exactly 400 minutes without allowing a goal, including four consecutive clean sheets for Newton.
“What they’ve done this year is fantastic,” Village said. “It’s kind of a catch-22. You’re extremely happy for the team. They’re doing so well that I can’t even get a sniff in a game. But it’s awesome to see your co-workers do so well in games and your team do so well.”
Village is the club’s only player to not see time during the USL season, though he did play 27 minutes in the club’s international friendly against La Liga side RCD Espanyol back in July. But his presence in training has been invaluable, Stern said.
“I cannot understate the importance of Mark Village this year to the group — not just to the goalkeepers but to the outfield players too,” Stern said. “It’s a guy who for me, he’s got one of the best attitudes that I’ve ever come across, whether that’s in England, in Montreal or here now. He has such an impressive attitude to turn up every day, to smile, to work hard, to help other guys, to deal with the disappointment that he’s had to face of not playing a game. His contribution is just as important as Spencer and Evan, who have played more games. He’s a massive part of the group. And I mean this when I say this — without him being here, I’m not sure we have the same cohesion and camaraderie in the goalkeeping group and the same success we’ve had this year.”
The nature of the goalkeeper position is unique. Most clubs carry three. One will start, of course. One is listed as a sub but typically only comes in if the starter is injured or gets a red card. And the third is left out of the matchday roster.
This is where Village’s contribution comes in. Village provides competition in training and pushes Newton and Richey. And though the trio is close on and off the pitch, Village concedes his situation can be mentally challenging.
“Being a No. 3 all this year, obviously you have your tough times, because you train all week and you never really take a week off,” he said. “You have to prepare every single week to think that I’m going to be the one to play.
“We’re all very close. And that’s the nice thing about it. There’s no — for lack of a better word — hatred between anybody. We’re all friends. We want to see each other succeed and do the best we can. It is very nice to have that, especially with Jack as well. Everything’s just so positive in training and off the field as well.”
Another unique part of being a goalkeeper is automatic enrollment in the Goalkeeper Union, something Stern often refers to on social media.
— Jack Stern (@JackSternGK) September 27, 2018
It’s a metaphor of course — there’s no actual union. It’s also something Newton, Village and Stern all struggle to explain. It goes beyond FC Cincinnati and applies to goalkeepers everywhere.
Part of it is that goalkeepers are hesitant to criticize opposing goalkeepers, Newton said, because sometimes a goal might not have been as easy to stop as it appeared. But there’s a little more.
“No one really understands what you go through as a goalkeeper,” Stern said. “And that is definitely not to say that outfield players don’t go through an incredible amount too. But there’s a special mentality for goalkeepers — the type of work you have to do. The way you train is very different to the team a lot of the time. And just really understanding once you’re out there (on the pitch), you’re kind of on your own. It’s quite an isolated position. What the Goalkeeper Union does is give some sort of camaraderie and some sort of group mentality to a position that’s very individual. If you’re a goalkeeper, you understand.”