By Jacob Sokol
Photos taken by Jacob Sokol
In the game of soccer, the player who scores is generally the most celebrated. On the other end of that exchange is a goalie. Positioning, sharp reflexes, and fearlessness are a few of the traits that help keep the ball out of the net. A good goalie, like a good striker, can change the course of a game.
To start off Charlotte FC’s second professional season in MLS, they would be without the goalie they relied on for most of their inaugural season. Kristijan Kahlina, known for his acrobatic saves, has been recovering from a back injury and the surgery that followed. In his absence, Pablo Sisniega and George Marks have stepped in, though the transition has not been easy.
For goalies to get the same recognition as goalscorers, they typically need a clean sheet or to make a vital save in a team victory. With zero clean sheets through the first five games of the season and only one win, Charlotte FC’s goalies, like the rest of the team, have had little opportunity to cherish success.
With a win and a draw in the last two matches, it would appear that the backline, who has been constantly experimented with this season, has finally started to gel. Marks was the keeper during those two matches, making him currently undefeated in the 2023 campaign. Marks and Sisniega, glory or not, are two players who ultimately trust the process and are prepared to put their bodies on the line for Charlotte FC. From humble beginnings to playing under the bright lights of Bank of America Stadium, both players continue their lifelong journey towards greatness in goal.
Photo taken by Jacob Sokol
Sisniega and Marks both find themselves in Charlotte, but their roots are quite different. Sisniega first started kicking a ball at the age of 3, a couple thousand miles away in Mexico City. “A bunch of friends of my mom, their kids, we all got together and made a backyard team and we started playing there,” Sisniega recalled.
By the age of eight he had joined Chivas Academy. “The day I went to Chivas, the first day of training I was wearing a Casillas Jersey. Because of it, they threw me in goal.” From there, the position stuck. Sisniega’s ability between the posts next took him to Philadelphia where he was recruited by an important coach to him, Tom Shaman. Shaman, a goalkeeper coach, would work with Sisniega every day after school.
The next leap came when Sisniega headed to Spain to join Real Sociedad. That’s where Sisniega solidified himself as a professional. After several years of development in Spain, he joined MLS. First was three years at LAFC, mostly as a backup, but managing 29 starts across three seasons to build experience before joining his current squad, Charlotte FC.
With all the moving around Sisniega has done, family remains the most important part of his life. With his family scattered between Mexico City and Philadelphia, it is his wife he leans on for support. “Having somebody that when you go home, it doesn't matter if you had a good or bad game, they're gonna be there, they're gonna support you, they're gonna help you, it is just a huge, huge relief and a huge help for me.”
Photo taken by Jacob Sokol
While Sisniega is well traveled, Marks has always remained a Carolina native. Raised in Raleigh, NC, Marks’ first memory of kicking a ball was playing in the Salvation Army Soccer League before the age of 5. “I think we were the Funky Chickens. Yellow jerseys. And I played striker and I think I banged in goals the whole season," Marks remembered with a laugh.
He would actually remain a striker as he joined NCFC - known as CASL at the time. It wasn’t until he was 10 that he even considered putting on goalie gloves. “I left NCFC for a little bit. The first time that I really made the change, I was playing indoor soccer at a place called XL Soccer World.” Indoor soccer is a much quicker game, often with point blank shots. It is an ideal environment for developing a young goalie.
He would return to CASL for U12 and continue there as a goalie for his youth career. Throughout those days one coach stood out to Marks. “On a personal level Ziggy Zigante, crazy old Croatian guy, just like literally obliterated both knees, like no ACLs, and he’s still kicking balls, but he kind of taught me everything I knew.” Zigante both played and coached professionally in the United States through the 80s and 90s.
The next big leap for Marks was college. For him it was between a lifelong favorite, Duke, or a serious soccer school in Clemson. “I was gonna go to Clemson to pursue a professional soccer career or I was gonna go to Duke and care about academics.” After joining Clemson he would justify his choice by eventually winning a national championship and becoming an MLS draft pick for Charlotte FC.
When Marks isn’t on the field making saves, he enjoys keeping his mind sharp with a book. “Reading was something that was super important to me when I was younger and I kind of got away from it through high school and a little bit of early college and I’m rediscovering it and, you know, just how much more I have to learn.” Marks enjoys a blend of fiction and non-fiction. The science fiction series, Red Rising, is a personal favorite of his.
Charlotte FC had a rough start to the season to put things mildly. Three losses with seven goals allowed and only one scored is hard for any team. With that many goals allowed it would be easy to look at a goalkeeper for potential mistakes. The problem is you wouldn’t find many in Sisniega’s three appearances in goal.
When Charlotte FC faced off against New England Revolution, Sisniega was one of the factors keeping them in the match until the last couple of minutes. He had multiple exceptional saves. One volley in particular was struck with so much pace it was miraculous that Sisniega got down in time to prevent it from nestling in the bottom corner. The goal he allowed was first given to New England easily in midfield, catching the defense off guard and out of position. The ball was quickly teed up to be easily passed past Sisniega, giving him very little chance.
The following match against St. Louis was filled with a plethora of defensive errors. An own goal by Bill Tuiloma that was wildly unpredictable, a handball by Karol Świderski which lead to a penalty kick, and Adilson Malanda passing it directly to St Louis in front of goal are three faults that don't rest on Sisniega's shoulders. Besides those goals, he played in the same charismatic and calm style that generally gives reassurance to a fan base.
It is almost cruel to continue to dissect the misfortunes that Sisniega has faced due to the continuous collapse of defensive structure and reliability. Within twelve minutes against Atlanta United, Charlotte FC were down 2-0. The defense was filled with gaps and at no point looked truly sound. The team lost 3-0 and once again, Sisniega had a performance that was not reflected in the score line.
When asked about the rough start to the season Sisniega said, “I think it's just being sharper in certain parts, especially in both boxes. I think that we've given up some soft goals that we probably shouldn't be giving up. And then we also haven't scored with all the chances we've created because we have created a decent amount of chances in the first three games that we've only got one goal which is obviously disappointing because it's very hard to win games if you don't score goals.” If Charlotte managed a goal against New England or a few less mistakes against St. Louis, they could have been looking at totally different results.
After three losses there were many shake-ups for the team heading to Orlando. Both outside backs were replaced and Designated Player, Świderski, was benched. The other big change was Marks getting his first start of the season in goal. While Sisniega was not making many mistakes, it was understandable after three losses that any change that could result in a positive was necessary.
It was not until a few hours before the match that Marks was officially informed he was starting. Ultimately the game time decision to have Marks on the field ended in success. Saving six out of seven shots, the one goal that Marks allowed ended up meaningless as Charlotte FC managed to score twice. Many of the shots Marks faced were point blank and required stellar reflexes. Marks had done enough to earn his place in goal.
Against the New York Red Bulls he would face a challenge that Sisniega had dealt with. Nathan Byrne, playing center back, had the ball easily stripped off of him which led to an easy goal that slid past Marks. Besides the easy goal, his performance was solid, providing great communication to his defenders as needed. Vinicius Mello being subbed in towards the end of the match led to a goal for Charlotte FC, earning them the draw.
Photo taken by Jacob Sokol
Overall, Marks has had more success. A win and a draw is obviously better than three losses. “The main thing was the result," Marks reflected on the Orlando win, continuing, “No matter how you perform individually the result is going to dictate how you feel at the end of the game.” In this situation the score line doesn’t portray the full picture, but it is the big picture. Both goalies have played at a very high level, saving everything expected of them and on a few occasions more. The mistakes of their teammates that they have had to answer for is not reflective of their performance. On any given day, the Charlotte FC fanbase would be lucky to have either of these goalies between the posts.
“It feels like every single time we have a Charlotte FC game, it's like the big ticket, and you can feel it in the stadium. it's not just people sitting in the stadium watching it, it really does feel kind of like a party. That's the feedback I've gotten from supporters who have come up to me and shared their gratitude. So yeah, if anything it's, it's more motivation for us to give them something to actually care about” - George Marks
“It’s incredible. Before the game they're all jumping. It's a party and they keep shouting. They keep supporting us for 90 minutes. So I think that we definitely have one of the best, if not the best atmosphere here” - Pablo Sisniega