CHESTER, Pa.—Last year, Andre Blake wasn’t sure what to expect.
The Philadelphia Union goalkeeper, after all, had never before had any kind of surgery in his life. How would he react – both mentally and physically – to two knee surgeries within four months?
But eight months later, Blake is thrilled at how he emerged from those frightening setbacks, starting six of the club's last eight games in 2015; he enters this season as the Union’s clear-cut No. 1 ’keeper for the first time since being drafted two years ago.
“Sometimes I even forget I had surgeries,” Blake told MLSsoccer.com. “I’m feeling great.”
That surely is a great thing to hear for the Union, who are counting on Blake to end the goalkeeping merry-go-round that has plagued the franchise, finally offering a long-term solution in net.
Through six years, 10 different goalkeepers have started in league play for the Union, to mixed results. But head coach Jim Curtin is prepared to hand the keys to the car to Blake, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, for the entire ’16 season and beyond.
“It’s huge for Andre to have that peace of mind to know that he’s going to be the guy,” Curtin said. “I think that’s made him more comfortable in terms of knowing where he stands with the group, with his teammates. You can see it on the field. He’s confident. He’s made some big saves in training.
“He’s capable of making the save that wins you a game. We have to get back to getting shutouts and it starts with Andre in the back. And I think a big first step is him just knowing that he is the guy, and he has that right now.”
Blake certainly didn’t have that kind of security during his rookie season in 2014, when he backed up Zac MacMath and later Rais Mbolhi, who was acquired in the middle of the season. And even after MacMath and Mbolhi both left town, Blake struggled to take over in net – in part due to injuries – and was behind either Brian Sylvestre or John McCarthy on the depth chart for most of 2015.
But through it all, the talented Jamaican kept a positive attitude, which first-year sporting director Earnie Stewart noticed right away when Blake arrived in camp this preseason.
“What I like about him is he comes in with a smile every single day,” Stewart said. “Soccer is fun and he resembles that …And he’s very quick, he’s agile, he’s fearless. So he has certain characteristics of a goalkeeper that are very good.”
Stewart added that he expects a good partnership between Blake and new goalkeeping coach Oka Nikolov, whom he believes will help Blake take “the next step in his career.”
The 25-year-old Blake, who spent part of his offseason playing internationally for Jamaica, certainly understands that this is the year for him to take that step. But he’s trying not to think about it quite in those terms.
“Yes, it’s a big year for me,” Blake admitted. “I’ve been hearing a lot of talking going around. But for me, that’s something that can cause a distraction and a lot of pressure. So I’m just going to take it one game at a time, and hopefully it all goes well.”
The key, of course, is playing a full season. Blake looked good at the end of the 2015 campaign, even setting a club record with 10 saves against New England on September 26, but the truth remains that he’s only started seven MLS games in his career.
How Blake plays in 2016 will go a long way in determining what kind of goalie he’ll be in MLS – and whether the Union can finally rest easy knowing they have a player to build around in net.
“I’m not guaranteeing he’s going to be the best goalie in MLS this year but he certainly has shown that he’s more than capable of being talked about in that regard,” Curtin said. “It’s going to be game in and game out. He needs that consistency. And he needs the run of games. It’s still an unknown until you put together a 34-game season. That’s what we’re shooting for with Andre. But his ability speaks for itself.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.