The United States soccer youth development system has long struggled to produce great international American soccer field players. In recent years, the development system has improved, but the United States Soccer Academy still trails all of the great international soccer countries. Aside from our country’s international “woes” in the field, we have still found a way to produce some of the world’s topnotch goalkeepers. Over the past two decades, the US has produced some of the most talented, athletic and consistent net-minders to date. Distinguished athletes such as Marcus Hahneman,Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, and Brad Guzan have all enjoyed decorated careers as starting shot-stoppers in top leagues around the world.
Why is it, then, that the US has produced so many successful and consistent goalkeepers, with so few outfield players in comparison?
The general consensus about Americans’ success in-between the pipes is that the American youth have long had the opportunity to develop the necessary athletic skills for goalkeeping because of consistent exposure to American sports at a young age. The logic behind this reasoning is that years of participation in sports such as basketball, baseball and even American football help these future athletes naturally develop a basis for great goalkeeping skills such as positional awareness and eye-hand coordination long before they begin their exclusive training as goalkeepers. As a non-goalkeeper looking from the outside in, why would a goalkeeper desire to go abroad at such a young age if past American goalkeepers have proven they can succeed through the US youth system? Cody Cropper recently challenged this question when he decided that the best course of action for his development was to take his talents to England. This is one of the many reasons he is currently one of the most intriguing goalkeeping talents in the American youth system.
Cody Joseph Cropper was born on February 16, 1993 in Maple Grove, Minnesota. Deciding to forgo the traditional path of most American goalkeepers, and soccer players in general, Cody chose to attempt to play in England, where he had several trials with many different teams. Finally, he signed with Ipswich Town FC in May 2010, spending three seasons mixing it up at their academy level. In 2012, at age 19, Cropper signed a two-year contract with Southampton that was extended by a year this past summer. On Southampton, Cropper plays for their Academy team, also receiving the honor to act as the third-string keeper during a few Southampton first-team matches. Although he has been called into camp with the USMNT, Cropper spends most of his international career as the first choice goalkeeper for the U-23 US youth squad.
Currently, Cody sits behind Polish international Artur Boruc (on loan at Bournemouth), English international Fraser Forster, English veteran Kelvin Davis, and the young Argentine Paolo Gazzaniga on the depth chart. This is a daunting list, especially since goalkeepers, like all soccer players, need playing time to develop. Although he is the low man on the totem pole, there have been promising signs that Southampton sees him an important part of their future. When Dave Watson, England’s former goalkeeping coach, was hired by Southampton, one of the first things he made sure to do was exercise the one-year extension option on Cody’s contract. This high-profile move by a man of Watson’s caliber illustrates Southampton’s commitment to better developing its goalkeepers. If one of his first steps after being hired is to secure the young Cropper to a one-year extension, then it is safe to assume he is part of Southampton’s future plans.
Goalkeepers do not have the same development path as outfield players. It can take them several more years than their outfield teammates to develop into starters. Yet, after they do, they typically last longer playing at high level. Sometimes a goalkeeper takes until age twenty-seven to become a full-time starter. While most outfield players peak at that age, most goalkeepers can keep playing until their forties. Although a thirty-eight-year-old net-minder may not be able to make every single glory save or scramble across the goalmouth in one leap and bound, he can still outplay the younger counterparts by using his experience. This is all due to the notion of knowledge is power. As they age goalkeepers can better manipulate their opponents into taking the shots they want by experienced positioning awareness as well as proper communication, keeping the defense in check at the back. Therefore, technically, Cropper can take the foot off the pedal and absorb as much as possible compared to his fellow USMNT youth prospects who play in the outfield. There are some goalkeepers, like Mattia Perin, Joe Hart and Thibaut Courtois, who get starting spots early, but this is not an indictment of Cody’s future. His place in the pecking order is hopefully only temporary.
It is clear that the US coaching staff has a lot of faith in Cody since he is currently the starting goalkeeper for the US U-23 team and has already been called up to several USMNT camps. This experience, combined with his current environment where he will be learning under England’s former goalkeeping coach, will be great for his development going forward. The scariest part about his future is how far behind he is in the depth chart. Although he has time to develop, he will need to get more first-team experience if he ever wants to get over the hump and become a consistent Premier League-caliber goalkeeper. However, for the time being, he is developing well at Southampton. If Cropper stays there for another year or two, then he will only improve. Nevertheless, he will still need to get consistent first-team experience. This may be hard to achieve at Southampton, so he probably will need to seek a transfer or a loan elsewhere. The team he goes to does not need to even be a Premier League team. At the end of the day the best move for Cody is to continue at Southampton and absorb as much as he can until he can find first-team experience.One can only wait to see what a talent Cody Cropper can develop into. Patience is key in goalkeeping.