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A Charlotte FC Offseason Analysis: Goalkeepers

By Vaughn Pollman

Image courtesy of Charlotte FC

As of Monday the 14th, Charlotte FC has made all of their final end-of-season roster decisions after declining the contract options for Quinn McNeil and Koa Santos. These decisions and the recent signing of Nimfasha Berchimas to a Homegrown Contract leave the roster sitting at 28 players under contract for the 2023 season heading into the nitty gritty of the offseason.

The Crown got through St. Louis City SC’s expansion draft last Friday unscathed, so we now can look forward with a clearer vision of where the roster stands and how the club may approach the rest of the offseason with free agency already kicking off earlier this week on the 16th.

This is the first of a 4-article series where we will assess the current state of the roster line by line, how the players at each position group performed in 2022, and discuss how the club may look to bolster the squad ahead of first kick.

Working our way from back to front, we will start with the position group that enters the offseason with probably the fewest question marks: Goalkeepers.

Current GK Depth Chart:

1. Kristijan Kahlina

2a. George Marks

2b. Pablo Sisniega

4. Adrían Zendejas

Is The Goalkeeper Position Set Or Will We See Offseason Additions Or Subtractions?

One of the reasons this series is beginning with the goalkeepers is that this feels like the position group with the most stability, depth, and least likely to see changes ahead of first kick in 2023. All four goalkeepers are under contract through 2023 and beyond with either long term deals or club option years.

We could see at least one goalkeeper loaned out as was the case with Zendejas to the Charlotte Independence last season, or we could see any of the players spend time in net for the club’s MLS Next Pro side. It would not be a surprise if the 23 year-old Marks, who was the club’s bench option for 31 games last season, is instead earning valuable playing time and experience with the MLS Next Pro team.

As the club tries to manage and fill two rosters across the senior and development team, we could see the team add additional keepers, most likely through the MLS SuperDraft or Academy player signings.

How Did Charlotte's Goalkeeping Unit Perform In 2022?

As a team Charlotte FC allowed 52 goals in the regular season, a respectable number for an expansion side, but 16th among the league’s 28 teams. That number and ranking will need to improve next season to qualify for the playoffs. While that number does not ride solely on the shoulders of the goalkeepers it’s the first go-to metric in establishing the general group performance relative to their peers across the league.

Naturally, our greatest sample size to evaluate individual performance comes from Kahlina who started 31 of our 34 regular season contests and also started 1 US Open Cup match. He was second on the team in minutes played in 2022 with only Brandt Bronico seeing more time on the pitch. Kahlina’s performances could be classified as a bit mercurial, highlighted by impressive saves one game to regretful gaffes the next. In his 32 appearances across all competitions, he allowed 51 goals while earning 7 cleansheets.

These simple stats support the reality that Kahlina had a rather pedestrian first campaign in MLS with the team ultimately being middle of the pack in nearly every statistical category related to goalkeeper performance. Those stats are maybe a bit misleading, but they do tell a story of what Kahlina was good at and what he struggled with at times.

Early in the season Kahlina received plaudits for his goalkeeping heroics and for seemingly “standing on his head” to keep us in games as he had to face a large volume of shots, often from dangerous goal scoring situation by Charlotte's opponents. He established a knack for making reaction kick saves on low shot attempts, a skill that tailed off as the season wore on. In addition to being adept at kick saves, he showed an ability to be strong in the air and stay close to his line, rarely leaving his goalmouth empty for tap-in goals.

The goals he and the team did concede early on were seen by the fanbase as unfortunate and could be chalked up to bad luck with the first seven goals allowed all coming from penalty kicks, deflections, or Efraín Álvarez magic. Those “unlucky” goals did stop happening as frequently, but Kahlina’s other key strength of being able to distribute the ball in possession and play out of the back led to some overconfidence and painful miscues, particularly in games at Philadelphia and at Columbus where individual gaffes led to goals handed to the other team.

His other notable lapse in judgment was in the final home game, once again against Columbus, with Lucas Zelarayán’s quick restart free kick from 56 yards catching Kahlina off his line.

Kahlina’s reluctance to come aggressively off his line did lead to some avoidable goals both in transition and when opponents were able to get touches near the top of his six yard box, particularly in midseason.

Kahlina is not a sweeper keeper, so it is understandable that those moments will occur, but going into next season if he can adjust his decision making to snuff out those opportunities close to goal before they are dangerous that would cut out some high expected goal chances.

In review of the Croatian keeper’s shot-stopping trends it became evident that when those early season kick saves were no longer happening as regularly and goals were coming from more natural run of play situations, it resulted in a perceived dip in form that highlighted some of Kahlina’s deficiencies which can be seen in the below spray chart of shots and goals conceded over the past calendar year.

It likely comes as no surprise that Kahlina conceded the bulk of goals from the left side of Charlotte FC's defense, but what stood out in reviewing Charlotte's opponent’s goals was how often Kahlina struggled to protect his far post. A vast majority of the goals he allowed were shots coming across his body with Kahlina’s positioning protecting his near post, but leaving too much of an available angle for shots to find the opposite corner of the goalmouth.

Graphic and statistics pulled from Wyscout*

Is Kahlina The Permanent #1 Now And In The Future?

Kahlina is under contract through the 2024 season with a club option for 2025. Barring something crazy happening injury-wise or off the field, we can pretty much write in Kahlina as our starting goalkeeper for the foreseeable future. The next question is whether or not that is a good thing and if an upgrade will be necessitated before the end of his contract? In looking back on his first MLS season and comparing him to other goalkeepers around the league, the underlying numbers do not shine very favorably on Kahlina. In fact, they indicate he is a rather average MLS starting goalkeeper.

Kahlina should benefit from more cohesiveness in the roster in year two and hopefully a more stable centerback pairing in front of him, but his growth potential as a goalkeeper at this stage of his career is likely not too great. What he can control is the momentary lapses in attention and decision making. Cutting out those individual errors and managing in game risks better will go a long way in improving his statistical output.

The hard truth is that regardless of that, Kahlina has yet to show us he is an outright “match-winning” goalkeeper at the MLS level. Players like Andre Blake, Sean Johnson, and Stefan Frei, for example, have earned their wings as high-level MLS goalkeepers for their higher-than-average shot stopping statistics and acrobatic saves that make weekly highlight reels and earn extra points for their clubs.

Kahlina showed that ability in flashes, but not week after week. If he can make that year two jump and find more consistency, the job will be his to lose for the foreseeable future. If he cannot make those improvements or if he suffers injuries, that may open the door for our backup keepers to step in on an interim or permanent basis.

Who Will Prove To Be Charlotte's Preferred Backup Goalkeeper?

While backup keeper is a bit of an under-appreciated and thankless position, the importance of having the right player ready to go at a moment’s notice can be paramount to a club’s success as we saw when LAFC turned to now MLS Cup MVP, John McCarthy in this year’s title game. For the Crown, the backup goalkeeper role and who fills those gloves seems to be open to debate as we enter our first offseason.

Based on the squad selections throughout the season it seemed clear that George Marks had secured the role as permanent backup to Kristijan Kahlina. He made the bench for 31 games and earned starts in the team’s early round US Open Cup matches as well as making his MLS regular season debut in a controversial 2-1 losing effort at Montreal. Then down the stretch, when Kahlina was forced to miss time due to injury, Pablo Sisniega entered the scene.

Sisniega earned two surprise starts over Marks, first against Philadelphia, securing a cleansheet in the team’s 4-0 romp, and then earning a second start at New York Red Bulls in the 2-0 season finale loss.

This competition between the two backups is a good sign for Charlotte's squad depth, but does beg the question of who Christian Lattanzio views as his preferred choice backup to step up when it counts. The short-term decision likely comes down to training sessions, but the long-term answer is probably more open-ended. While Sisniega has more MLS experience from his past stint at LAFC, Marks is the younger selection who could prove to be in a better position to become Kahlina’s “heir apparent.”

Will Adrían Zendejas Get Minutes For Charlotte's MLS Next Pro Side Or Another Club?

It would be an error to not mention Zendejas and his future. While he is seemingly buried on the team’s depth chart, he does have 5 MLS starts under his belt for Sporting Kansas City and he performed admirably while on loan with the Charlotte Independence in USL League One, conceding 29 goals in 24 starts while earning 6 cleansheets in just over 2000 minutes of net-minding action. Those minutes make him maybe the most game-ready backup we have.

Zendejas will be 27 years old entering next season, pushing the limits of who you probably want in net for a development team like our MLS Next Pro team. That means he could be a candidate to be loaned out again, though the Charlotte Independence, while local, will no longer be an official affiliate club for Charlotte FC next season. Where Zendejas ends up will be telling to the rest of our organizational goalkeeper depth plans for both next season and future seasons.

*This data is counted from 8/18/2021, when Kahlina played for Ludogorets, to 8/19/2022 when he played for Charlotte FC.