Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders prepares for a shot on goal during a CONCACAF… (Jake Roth / US Presswire )
For six years, Josh Saunders prepared himself every day for a chance he was never sure he'd get. Such is the life of a backup goalkeeper in the MLS.
But any thoughts he had that it all might have been a waste of time were dispelled this season when Saunders stepped in for regular goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and posted seven shutouts and 10 wins in 16 starts, leaving the Galaxy poised to finish with the league's best regular-season record for the second year in a row.
"It's been great to get a rhythm out there on the field," said Saunders, who has played more games and minutes this season than in his first six MLS seasons combined. "I approach every game the same whether I'm playing or not. So how I prepare when I'm not playing has helped me prepare for games when I am playing."
The numbers show that's working. Heading into Saturday's home game against Real Salt Lake, only two regular goalkeepers — Ricketts and Seattle's Kasey Keller — had a higher save percentage than Saunders, who has stopped 75% of the shots he has faced. And only Ricketts had a lower goals-against average than Saunders, who has given up less than a goal a game in 17 games.
As a result the Galaxy has played nearly as well without Ricketts, who has sat out 18 games because of Gold Cup duties with Jamaica as well as a broken forearm and strained quadriceps, as it did with him. Which is saying something, since Ricketts was the MLS goalkeeper of the year last season.
"We have a team that's set up for goalkeeper success as long as you stick to your job and do things the proper [way]," said Saunders, 30, a former Cal State Fullerton goalkeeper who has started 10 of the Galaxy's last 11 games and played in 14 of the last 16. "We have a great defense. Our back four is extremely good. That goes to show you that what they do goes a long way for us as keepers."
And not just for Ricketts and Saunders. In a late June tie in San Jose, Ricketts broke his forearm early in the first half and Saunders drew a red card shortly after taking over. That forced the Galaxy to use midfielder Mike Magee in goal and he stopped three shots to complete the shutout.
A week later, with Ricketts and Saunders still out, the Galaxy used third-string goalkeeper Brian Perk against high-scoring Seattle and posted another shutout.
As a result, the Galaxy needs one shutout in its final four games to equal the league record of 17 in a season. Yet, all of that goes almost unnoticed on a team that ranks second in the Western Conference in scoring behind Landon Donovan, the conference goals leader, and midfielder David Beckham, who tops the league with 14 assists.
"It's a team that's balanced," Coach Bruce Arena said. "That's what you have to have. All teams that are successful are successful because they don't give up a lot of goals. You don't win big games 3-2 or 5-3."
Nor, generally, do you win big games when your starting goalkeeper goes down. In the Galaxy's case, however, Saunders has kept them from missing a beat.
"You want players, when their number's called, they step up and they perform," Arena said. "And no one can argue that Josh hasn't done his fair share."