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Andre Blake reflects on a tough year as he leads the Union into the second round of the playoffs

Blake has excelled again in MLS, but Jamaica's national team has struggled. Off the field, he opened a sports bar in his home town but faced the death of his grandmother. He has had to balance it all.

Andre Blake at work during the Union's practice session on Wednesday.
Andre Blake at work during the Union's practice session on Wednesday.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Andre Blake has done so much on and off the field this year that it’s almost easy to forget the scale of it all.

There have been 33 games with the Union, including six in the Concacaf Champions League and one all-timer last weekend in the playoffs.

There have been 11 games with Jamaica’s men’s national team, three out of the Reggae Boyz’ four in the Gold Cup and all eight in the final round of World Cup qualifying so far. Blake has worn the captain’s armband every time, as he has for years, on a squad that includes English Premier League stars Michail Antonio (West Ham United) and Leon Bailey (Aston Villa).

He has led off the field too, marshaling his teammates through a strike threat in March over a lowball match fee proposal from the Jamaican Football Federation.

Away from soccer, Blake and his wife opened a sports bar in his home town of May Pen, Jamaica, in February. In early September, his grandmother died, and in late October he was given a weekend off by the Union to mourn with his family.

And of course, all along the way he has been doing his best to keep his family — including two young children — safe from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Outstanding on the field again

“I know it’s been a lot — I can feel it mentally and physically,” Blake said as he prepared to face Nashville SC on Sunday in the Union’s first-ever second-round playoff home game (5:30 p.m., ESPN and ESPN Deportes).

“To say the least, it’s very hard,” he said. “To an extent, I think it’s unfair, but it is what it is. As a professional, you just have to find ways to deal with different things as you would on the pitch.”

Blake has done that and then some with the Union. He compiled a 12-6-8 regular-season record with 12 shutouts, 11 in wins and one in a scoreless tie.

His goals-allowed-per-90 minutes in league play this year was a league-best 0.92, and he was one of just five goalkeepers with a figure below 1.0. MLS goalkeeper of the year Matt Turner, who starred in leading the New England Revolution to the Supporters’ Shield with a record 73 points, wasn’t one of them.

Blake was strong again in the grueling playoff win last weekend over the New York Red Bulls, in which the clock ran for 130 minutes, counting all the stoppage time. Blake still had enough in the tank at the end to run the full length of the field — “more like a stride,” he said, not a true sprint — to join his teammates’ mass celebration of Jakob Glesnes’ late winning goal.

“I could do it over and over and over again for that moment,” he said with a laugh. “That’s one of the greatest moments of my career being on the Union. The whole timing and the quality of the goal, the atmosphere, the fans, it was just perfect.”

» READ MORE: Jakob Glesnes’ epic game-winning goal set off one of the Union’s all-time celebrations

It was also as good a sign as any that he has shaken off a groin injury he suffered during last month’s World Cup qualifiers, which caused him to miss the Union’s Oct. 16 game at Montreal.

“At one point, I was a little jacked up from all the traveling, all the plane [flights], and all the kicking,” he said. “I had to be smart and kind of manage my load a little bit, but I’m good now and not feeling anything.”

Going deeper

Blake doesn’t just look good in the usual box score stats. The researchers at global firm StatsBomb and Philadelphia-based compile a metric called Post-Shot Expected Goals, which measures how many goals a goalkeeper should concede based on the quality of shots he faces. Then they subtract how many goals were actually conceded, excluding own goals. Blake’s differential was +7.5, the second-best figure in MLS and one of just two above +6.0.

There is one statistical area in which Blake doesn’t look so good: pass completion percentage. He completed just 61.2% of his attempts this season, well below many other top MLS goalkeepers.

But there’s an underlying reason that brings significant context. The Union don’t often build possession out of the back to move the ball up the field. Their fast-paced, counterpressing system aims to get the ball into the opponent’s half quickly, and force opponents into turnovers if they have the ball in their end.

» READ MORE: Dániel Gazdag is hitting his stride after taking a few months to adjust to MLS

In other words — hide your eyes, soccer aesthetes — Blake plays a lot of long balls.

“We’re not built to really play out of the back; that’s not our style,” he said. “It’s clear in our heads what we really want to do: we want to play long, play for second balls, and try to play in their half. So that does require more long kicking than short kicking.”

And he doesn’t mind.

“I think it’s a very effective style of play that probably doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves,” Blake said. “But that’s how we play, and we’ve been we’ve been successful with it.”

Club and country

While Blake has been winning lately with the Union, he’s had to watch Jamaica struggle. The Reggae Boyz opened World Cup qualifying with a 2-1 loss at Mexico that was sealed by an 89th-minute winner for El Tri. Then they were stunned, 3-0, at home to a Panama team that has been better than expected but has won mostly with defense first.

Jamaica has steadied its ship somewhat since then. But it still has just one win, and is seven points back of Panama for fourth place — the last one that avoids elimination at the end of the round.

The good news is that four of the Reggae Boyz’ six remaining games are at home. Blake believes the team can make a charge up the standings.

“If you win all four [home] games, that’s 12 points, and there’s a chance that if you’re winning, somebody else is losing,” he said. “We’re still in it and there’s still a lot more soccer to be played, and we’re not going to give up until it’s over.”

» READ MORE: Brenden Aaronson’s rocket ride to stardom has reached its highest point yet

There’s one other item on Blake’s calendar that hasn’t been mentioned yet. His 31st birthday was last Sunday, and he got to celebrate it with family and teammates after last Saturday’s game. That was a welcome moment of relaxation after so much toil.

“I think everybody deserves that. A lot has been asked of us, and we were able to get it done, so I think the least that can happen is for us to be rewarded with some quality down time. Some quality rest, really recuperate, get away from the game for a little bit and come back fresh.”

Now he’s looking toward Nashville. Both regular-season meetings finished 1-0, with each team winning at home. Blake expects this game to be similar.

» READ MORE: Jamiro Monteiro to return for Union’s playoff game vs. Nashville, but Olivier Mbaizo remains out for now

“I think it’s going to be a cat-and-mouse game,” he said. “It’s definitely going to have the playoffs’ intensity. And the good thing for us is, we were just in a one-goal game, so we can carry all that confidence and all that momentum into this game.”

Of course, he’d rather win by a few goals and have the night be less stressful. But he’s ready for whatever may come. And he knows one of his biggest fans will be watching from above.

“Grandma would have wanted us to be strong,” he said. “That’s the least we can do for her. We know she’s in a better place, and it’s tough. But you know, we have to find a way to pull through, and being strong is the only option.”