Late last year, some Union fans started worrying about Andre Blake.
If you agreed with them, you probably looked at the statistics above all else. The Union gave up 57 goals last year in all competitions. Blake didn’t pitch a shutout in the team’s last 13 games of the season, and only had six for the team all year. His goals-against average rose from 1.5 in 2018 (57 goals allowed in 38 games) to 1.64 in 2019 (46 in 28).
To look solely at numbers, though, misses a pretty important piece of the puzzle. The Union’s tactical shift from a possession-oriented system to one of high-speed pressing and counterattacking meant that from the very start they were likely to both score and give up more goals.
And they did score more goals: a team-record 63 across all competitions, up from 61 in a 2018 campaign that included a much longer U.S. Open Cup run. Just in league games, the Union scored 58 goals and conceded 50 last year, after scoring 49 and conceding 50 in 2018.
Of course, the defensive end of the field is what matters when it comes to Blake, so let’s focus there. If the tactical change sounds like soccer jargon, there’s a basketball comparison: A team used to playing a motion offense and man defense switches to an up-tempo, short-shot clock offense and full-court press.
Then expand the playing surface from a basketball court to a soccer field, which can leave a goalkeeper out to dry pretty often if a team isn’t careful.
Oh, and play the high press with Haris Medunjanin in the middle as the Union did last year. As good a player as he is, the system doesn’t work as well as it would with a ball hawk like, say, Julie Ertz.
Put it all together and you might conclude that maybe the Union’s defensive woes last year weren’t just Blake’s fault. You’ll certainly realize quickly (as most Union fans have) why it made sense to move on from Medunjanin and bring in Matej Oravec and José Martinez -- both of whom fit the style much better.
This isn’t to say Blake, sporting director Ernst Tanner, or anyone else at the Union is satisfied, or should be. It’s just being realistic. The players in front of Blake this year, including new centerback Jakob Glesnes, shouldn’t put him in as many bad situations as last year’s did.
Still, don’t be surprised if the Union play more 3-2 games than 1-0 games this year.
“We’re just all going to have to be bought into the system, and going to have to be willing to put our bodies on the line to stop teams from scoring, and we’re just going have to take pride in it," Blake said. “It’s soccer at the end of the day. Regardless, you have to adjust, and for me, it’s about how quickly can you adjust and be able to do whatever is required.”
This will be a big year for Blake beyond just the Union. Jamaica’s national team will be in Concacaf’s marquee final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time since the 2014 cycle. And thanks to big-time players like Bayer Leverkusen’s Leon Bailey, the Reggae Boyz have a real chance of reaching their first World Cup since their only previous appearance, in 1998.
The qualifying run will bring big games against Mexico, the United States, and Costa Rica that scouts worldwide will be watching. There’s also a Concacaf Gold Cup next year. If Blake plays big, the 29-year-old might get another round of foreign offers -- especially if Jamaica stays in the top 50 of FIFA’s global rankings, which will get him a work permit in England.
“There’s a lot of soccer to play for club and country, there’s going to be a lot on the line,” said Blake, who wears the captain’s armband for his country. “I have to make sure I do everything to be ready, to stay sharp, to stay fit. I’m definitely looking forward to a big year, to do whatever it takes in the net when I’m with club and country to be successful, and to help my team be successful."
The Union lost a closed-door scrimmage to FC Cincinnati, 1-0, on Wednesday. The Union previously lost scrimmages to Atlanta United, 3-0, and beaten the Chicago Fire, 3-0, and the Montreal Impact, 1-0. Kacper Przybylko (twice), Anthony Fontana, and USL prospect Issa Rayyan have scored the goals.