Through two managers, three sporting directors, a slew of positional coaches, and 160 games over seven seasons, Andre Blake has been a rock in net for the Union.
This year, he’s been exceptional. He has made 81 saves over 24 games, including at least five saves in a game seven times. He has recorded nine shutouts, tied for his second-highest total in a season.
You could pick numerous moments when he made his case to win Major League Soccer’s goalkeeper of the year award, which he received Monday. Try the six-save shutout of New York City FC at the start of the MLS Is Back tournament on July 9. Or the seven-save effort against Sporting Kansas City in the round of 16 on July 30. Or one of the defining games in the charge to the Supporters' Shield, a seven-save bailout at New England on Oct. 19.
But the day when Blake truly clinched the prize was one when he didn’t play.
Yes, it was the Union’s loss in Columbus on Nov. 1, the team’s first game after Blake suffered a fractured hand. It’s a lot easier to stomach now that the Supporters' Shield is in hand, and knowing that Blake should be back for the playoffs.
Up to then, there were debates about whether Blake or New England’s Matt Turner deserved the honor. If you had watched Blake enough, you knew the answer. By the end of that day, the rest of the league knew, too.
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The Jamaican stalwart wasn’t as bad last year as people made him out to be — and in case you forgot, plenty of people did that. A combination of the first year of a counter-pressing playbook and the lack of defensive steel in midfield meant he was often left helpless when opponents broke toward him.
There’s no question, though, that Blake has been sensational this year. He has faced more shots per game this year than last, 4.25 to 3.75, and registered the league’s third-highest save percentage. Both players ahead of him, Dallas' Jimmy Maurer and Columbus' Eloy Room, have played far fewer games.
So if the midfield got better, which it obviously did, what changed?
Maybe not as much as you think. Or, to be more blunt, maybe it’s time to admit Blake has been good all along. He won goalkeeper of the year in 2016, too, and is now just the fifth player in MLS history to win the award twice.
Has Blake been this spectacular every season? No. But plenty of Union fans have taken him for granted in his career. That says something in a city prone to scrutinizing netminders as harshly as it does quarterbacks.
“He’s had to endure being patient at the start of his career, to becoming goalkeeper of the year [in 2016], to at the end of last year having a couple tough games,” coach Jim Curtin said. “But he always was this quality of a player. And now you look and you say, we improved the team in front of him, we improved the defending in front of him.”
Blake has carried the Union on and off the field plenty often in his five seasons as a starter. And he’s carried his country, too. That doesn’t count in MLS awards, but it will count when the Reggae Boyz start World Cup qualifying next year — giving foreign scouts another high-profile chance to see how good he is.
It shouldn’t take European transfer buzz for people to recognize how good Blake is. It shouldn’t take an award like this, as deserved as it is. He’s been among MLS’s elite goalkeepers for five years now, no matter who has played in front of him. The Union have known it all along, and so has anyone who has watched him regularly.
If you needed a reminder, now you have it.