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Goalkeeping is Easily Orlando City’s Biggest Gamble Entering 2019

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The Lions are betting the house on three talented guys short on MLS experience.

Image courtesy of EM Dash Photography

Five top flight starts. That’s the totality of experience Orlando City has at the goalkeeping position entering 2019 and, while that prospect would cause countless sleepless nights for fans, as well as many MLS general managers, the Lions’ front office is totally OK with that, as The Mane Land first reported in early January.

It’s a brave new world for Orlando City in terms of the club’s goalkeeping situation in 2019. Back in 2015, we wrote about a solid group at the position that included veteran Donovan Ricketts holding down the fort while Tally Hall recovered from surgery, with Josh Ford and Earl Edwards, Jr. fighting for time as the backup. For the last three years, the club’s starter was settled, as Joe Bendik manned the position between the sticks for the Lions.

Ricketts departed upon Hall’s return and another injury at the end of 2015 sent the likable Hall into early retirement, where he has since pursued a new dream of protecting the citizens of Orlando in law enforcement. Ford has long since gone and Edwards’ rights were shipped to D.C. for a second-round pick that the Lions turned into midfielder Tommy Madden. Bendik departed after his form dipped in his third season in Orlando, as the Lions acquired $50,000 in Targeted Allocation Money from the Columbus Crew in exchange for his rights.

The unlikely man still standing from last year’s group of goalkeepers is Adam Grinwis, who would seem to be the logical incumbent trying to hold onto the job. Grinwis was signed last January from Saint Louis FC to battle Edwards for the position behind Bendik. Grinwis, 26, started his first five MLS matches in 2018 and that makes him by far the most experienced MLS goalkeeper of the three players the Lions have at the position.

Orlando City Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi has said publicly that the team is not looking for another goalkeeper prior to the 2019 season. That’s not to say if the right one became available the team wouldn’t make a move, but it is a bold strategy to put so much on three guys who have combined for five MLS starts — all by Grinwis. (Let’s see how it works out for them, Cotton!)

“We have three guys who are really good goalkeepers. Mason (Stajduhar) is back and fully healthy. I met Adam (Grinwis) training. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t be looking at a goalkeeper eventually but that’s not our top priority right now. We may end up getting somebody else. Right now we have three quality goalkeepers and if any one of the three has to play, I’m very comfortable with any one of the three.”

After two years of battling injuries and then bone cancer, 21-year-old Homegrown signing Mason Stajduhar finally seems healthy enough to mount a challenge for the position. While Stajduhar’s upside is considerable, having spent time with various U.S. national youth teams, he has yet to start a professional match at any level. He dressed as a backup for OCB five times and was a backup for Louisville City FC on a short-term loan in 2016. Despite being with the club for a few years now, he would seem to be the dark horse in the race.

The unknown candidate to most Lions fans is Greg Ranjitsingh — a Canadian-born Trinidad & Tobago international who has spent the last four years at Louisville City FC. He began as a backup behind Scott Goodwin there under current Orlando City Head Coach James O’Connor and then flourished as the starter. He led LCFC to a pair of USL championships the last two years, posting shutouts in the championship match both times. The Lions signed Ranjitsingh, along with teammate Kyle Smith on Dec. 19.

Although he has no starts at the MLS level, Ranjitsingh just feels like the guy who will start on opening day. The 25-year-old played in 81 regular season and 11 playoff matches with Louisville City the last three years, posting 33 shutouts. He was an unused substitute in two matches with Trinidad & Tobago in 2018 World Cup qualifying, including his country’s famous win that knocked the United States out of the competition.

The reason Ranjitsingh feels like the guy to me is because of O’Connor’s familiarity with him and his trust level. While Grinwis clearly won over O’Connor at the end of last season in the battle with Bendik and Edwards, Ranjitsingh provides a new wrinkle to the competition, and one that is a known commodity to the Lions’ manager, as well as his goalkeeping coach, Thabane Sutu.

The 2019 goalkeeping battle began in earnest on Monday when the team commenced preseason at IMG Academy in Bradenton. Jordan Culver of ProSoccerUSA.com wrote about the position tussle yesterday — which apparently includes trialist Todd Morton from the University of Delaware — catching up with the three main combatants.

Grinwis spoke of his desire to hold onto the starting position, while Ranjitsingh talked about the chemistry and banter between the three keepers. Stajduhar stated he was just happy the off-season was over so he could get back to work. Check out Culver’s piece for more from the three keepers.

The lack of top flight starts among the club’s goalkeepers raises eyebrows. After all, the Lions set a new MLS record for goals allowed last season and that was with a veteran goalkeeper who had been among the best shot stoppers in the league the two prior years. While it’s true that Bendik did allow some uncharacteristically stoppable goals last year, and both Edwards and Grinwis allowed at least one each that seemed preventable, much of the team’s defensive issues stemmed from the constantly changing back line and defensive midfield combinations due to injuries (mainly), suspensions, and some international duty (Yoshimar Yotún).

I’ll admit I was among many people who expected the club to make acquiring a veteran goalkeeper a top priority after the decision was made to let Bendik go. At this point I’m leaning toward the conclusion that not doing so was not a wise decision by the club but, admittedly, I haven’t seen enough of Ranjitsingh to get a true grasp of whether or not he can make the transition to MLS. At any rate, even if it works out, it’s certainly a risky proposition to enter an MLS season with five total starts among such a key position group.

Orlando City is willing to take that risk and put all of its eggs in a basket constructed of three guys ranging from age 21 to 26. It’s admirable that the front office has the confidence to go young but only time will tell if that confidence will be rewarded. It’s a gamble that might work out, or it could backfire spectacularly, but it is the position that will bear the most scrutiny during the preseason. If things aren’t going well leading up to March, the team could pick up an unattached veteran at that time, but that player would likely be only a stopgap measure due to the team’s salary cap position.

For now, though, it’s time to let the kids play at goalkeeper.