With the New England Revolution on a heck of a run in their last six league games (3-1-2, 8 goals scored, 3 goals conceded), it has become apparent that the squad's number-one strength is its defense. New England is currently the best-ranked defense in the league with a paltry 9 goals allowed in twelve games, which includes a four-goal anomaly in a loss to New York.
Such a stellar defensive record is impossible without the entire squad pitching in to defend from front to back, so attributing that success to just one player would be disingenuous. However, there is one individual who has emerged almost out of nowhere to become a central figure in this transformation, and that's goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth.
Bobby's a guy who has been developing with the Revs for years now. Earlier in his career he was panned heavily as his few appearances generally resulted in multi-goal disasters. Then, toward the end of last season, he made a run of straight starts and put up pretty solid numbers, earning several shutouts and keeping the Revs in matches as they put together a decent sequence of games to salvage an otherwise embarrassing season.
This season, however, he's totally broken out. There's no question in anyone's mind that he's the number one goalkeeper in this squad, having supplanted long-time netminder Matt Reis. Some would call it a difficult position, but with Reis being the consummate professional that he is, it's turned out to be a great situation for Shuttleworth.
"I think Matt Reis has been an excellent person for this role. He's helped Bobby (Shuttleworth) along the way," said head coach Jay Heaps after the Toronto match. "I'm telling you Matt Reis is, obviously, everything that happened around his family he's been here every day, he's been pushing Bobby and for me Matt has been a true professional allowing Bobby to get better every week. It's a good place to have, it's a good competition but it's also good mentorship."
And Bobby has certainly gotten better. After going 0-3-1 in his first four starts of 2013 and conceding six goals, he's rebounded, spearheading the 3-1-2 run and lowering his season-long goals-against average to a staggering 0.90 (not half bad considering he was in goal for the 4-1 loss to New York). In fact, that makes him third among all keepers in the league with at least ten starts, behind Jimmy Nielsen and Clint Irwin.
In that time, he's also pulled off 34 saves. That gives him a save percentage of 77%, which is the best in the league in that same category of goalkeepers with ten-plus starts. Plus, who could forget the game against Portland, where he stood tall against the Rose City's voracious attack and made nine saves?
He's been dominant aerially, commanding of his back line, and quick to sweep away through balls and breakaways. In short, he's built on his natural strengths - size, athleticism, reflexes - and added the key goalkeeping attributes of communication, aerial presence, and anticipation. Before our eyes, Bobby has grown into at least a top-half goalkeeper in this league.
His rise is actually reminiscent of another player who is receiving wide-spread plaudits for his work in net. This other keeper also started his career in the shadow of an MLS legend, and while at first his potential wasn't recognized by fans of the league, he's now taken his opportunity and ran with it.
I speak, of course, of Tally Hall. Perhaps I'm just not knowledgeable enough of the situation, but as I remember, Hall wasn't exactly a heralded prospect. I don't think anyone thought he was garbage, but he's grown into the next great MLS stopper, even getting looks from the national team. Count me among those who never saw that coming.
To suggest that Bobby could get there one day is premature, but not out of the question. If he continues to develop as he has, the sky really is the limit. The one area of his game he should probably improve is distribution: in 2013, his overall passing percentage is 54.4%, completing 191 of 351 attempted passes. He's also been somewhat erratic, with performances of over 80% accuracy in two games, but also a couple of games where he completed less than 50%, including a dismal 32.4% in the draw against Portland.
A lot of that has to do with other factors, but it's evident that he does better when he receives the ball and attempts to play it to his defenders on the floor rather than boot it up field. He has a staggeringly powerful leg, though, and using that wisely could result in the creation of surprise route-one chances for the Revs in the future.
As the offense has picked up in recent weeks, the ascent of Diego Fagundez and Juan Agudelo, plus the emergence of Jose Goncalves as a defensive rock, has somewhat overshadowed what Bobby has managed to accomplish in 2013. His contributions, though, cannot be understated. Given his young age, the Revs may have actually developed the goalkeeper of the future in Shuttleworth, and if so, the future is now.