Jamaican international goalkeeper Andre Blake was showered with praise by manager Jim Curtin ahead of the Philadelphia Union's first preseason match against the Jacksonville Armada FC in Jacksonville, Florida on February 6th.
When asked about the 25-year-old keeper, Curtin said, “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."
Tumultuous Times For Blake
The former number one draft pick has endured a tumultuous time so far with the Union following spells on the side line following double knee surgery along with a variety of injures, as well as having played back up to an array of goalkeepers that included Zac MacMath, Rais M'Bohli, Brian Sylvestre, and John McCarthy.
The 25-year-old May Pen, Jamaica native appears full of confidence and raring to go, having been quoted as saying, “Sometimes I even forget I had surgeries, I’m feeling great.”
Fans and staff alike will hope Blake provides the long term solution to what was described as a goalkeeping "merry-go-round" that has seen the Union go through 10 keepers in their six years of existence.
Blake led the team in nearly every goalkeeping category last season despite just making six appearance in the league. In that time he racked up 26 saves, a 1.50 goals against average, and an impressive 76.5 save percentage.
Curtin however wasn't the only one to speak highly of Blake. Newly appointed sporting director Earnie Stewart also spoke highly of him, saying, "After 2 years of waiting, Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake enters 2016 as team's clear No. 1: "He's going to be the guy".
Last year, Blake wasn’t sure what to expect. The 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 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.
High Praise From Jim Curtin
“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 MacMath and later M’Bohli, who was acquired in the middle of the season. And even after MacMath and M’Bohli both left town, Blake struggled to take over in net – in part due to injuries – and was behind either Sylvestre or McCarthy on the depth chart for most of 2015.
High Praise From Earnie Stewart
But through it all, the talented Jamaican kept a positive attitude, which first-year sporting director 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 was also quick to praise new goalkeeping coach and former Union keeper Oka Nikolov, whom he said will help Blake take “the next step in his career.”
The former University of Connecticut man will also have the advantage of having a full preseason under his belt following training sessions at the University of Pennsylvania, YSC Sports, as well as matches against the Jacksonville Armada and the Chicago Fire set to take place this month while the team train in Florida.
While there are no absolutes in the game of soccer, it's safe to say that Philadelphia are in good hands with a rejuvenated talent in the form of goalkeeper Andre Blake.