Joe Bendik the top form keeper in MLS?

Joe Bendik making one of his many saves agaisnt Philly - USA TODAY Sports

Just how good has Joe Bendik been early in the season for Toronto FC? He is starting to make folks around the league take notice but is he actually the best keeper in MLS based on current form?

When Toronto FC traded Ryan Johnson and Milos Kocic off to the Portland Timbers for Joe Bendik, a draft pick, and some allocation money it seemed like an okay move. Kocic had been a solid keeper for Toronto but was not going to sit around and play number 2 to Stefan Frei and for all the good that Johnson brought to TFC, his finishing was just too inconsistent for a player on his salary. Toronto was looking at another rebuild and both players were parts that could be replaced easily enough despite being key contributors in 2012.

The move made sense because it opened up salary space to help rebuild other areas of the roster and it landed Toronto a draft pick which was the 3rd overall selection and could be turned into a useful player that could become part of the club's long term plan. At the time it seemed like Bendik was nothing more than an afterthought in the deal as Portland did not need him with Kocic coming in.

Prior to coming to Toronto Bendik had just five appearances with the Timbers and only three of those were starts. His 326 minutes of MLS action in 2012 were not a lot to judge him off of. In his three starts with the Timbers last season he picked up two draws and a loss, allowing a total of five goals. The numbers were not all that impressive for a player who had come to MLS after helping his club in Norway earn promotion to the top flight.

It was safe to say that before arriving in Toronto Bendik had done very little to get the attention of anyone around MLS and that seemed to be okay for the soft spoken 23 year old. Not one to seek out the spotlight he came to Toronto ready to fill the backup spot behind Frei and looking to continue his development.

Then Frei went down in his first game of the preseason with a broken nose and the whole plan was thrown into turmoil. Bendik was thrown into the spotlight having to start the rest of Toronto's preseason matches down in Orlando and doing an acceptable job in goal. His effort in the preseason didn't have anyone forgetting about Frei but he showed that he was capable of filling the void for the few weeks that Frei was expected to be out.

When the season opened Bendik was given the chance to take over the roll of starter as it was unclear how long Frei would be out. Frei is healthy and back in training now with TFC but Bendik has shown in recent weeks that he is not just going to hand the starting job over without putting up a good fight.

Similar to what happened with Milos Kocic, Bendik has used Frei's injury as a chance to make a name for himself and prove to the coaching staff, fans, and pundits that he is more than capable of getting the job done. His performance against the Philadelphia Union has seen him named player of the week on a number of different sites while finishing second in MLS voting for the honour. He was also nominated for "Save of the Week" for his last gasp save on Kleberson's deflected shot. He was also up for "Save of the Week" back in week five when he stoned Mike Magee of the L.A. Galaxy.

The awards are nice and they show that people are taking notice of Bendik but just how does he stack up against other MLS keepers? Is the attention he is receiving just a result of having to deal with a lot of shots and chances by virtue of being in net for Toronto or is there more to it than that?

If you want to decide who is the best goalkeeper based on the number of saves that they make then Dan Kennedy is your man. His 28 saves so far this season have no doubt kept Chivas USA in plenty of games and his total is 5 more than Nick Rimando in second place. Bendik though is right around the average for starting keepers with 20 saves in 6 matches.

Maybe you prefer to judge you keepers by the number of goals that they have allowed. If that is the case then Bendik, who has allowed 9 goals so far this season, has the second worst total in the league behind just Luis Robles of New York Red Bulls who has conceded 11 goals in 8 matches so far. If you break it down in terms of goals against average then Bendik is still second worst as his 1.5 GAA is second only to Chicago Fire's Sean Johnson who has a 1.6. The league leader in that regard is Jimmy Nielsen from Sporting Kansas City who has only allowed 3 goals in 7 games which translates to a 0.43 GAA.

How about if we look at save percentages? Well, that is not going to help Bendik's case either as his is currently sitting at 67% which is well below the league leaders. Troy Perkins and Nick Rimando lead the way in this category with percentages just north of 80 while the average MLS started is somewhere in the 70's. Bendik does not have the worst number in this category though as Tally Hall, Luis Robles, Carlo Cudicini, Donovan Ricketts, and Zac MacMath all have worse numbers with five or more appearances.

So if you want to go by any of the simple stats then it looks like Bendik is somewhere between the lower end of average and below average and the fact that he is not being peppered by a massive number of shots does not even help his cause in this case.

So how do his numbers in 2013 compare to the career numbers for both Milos Kocic and Stefan Frei? Well, that is actually a favorable comparison.

Name Games Played Goals against Average
Save Percentage
Stefan Frei 81 1.55 69
Milos Kocic 41 1.75 64
Joe Bendik (in 2013) 6 1.50 67

In terms of TFC's last three keepers Bendik's numbers so far this season are right about where you would expect them to be and are actually the best of the bunch all be it in a much smaller sample.

The issue is that it is impossible to qualify the play of a goalkeeper based on any single stat because so many factors come into play. Not all saves are created equally and not all keepers get to play behind Sporting Kansas City's defense where they face a quality shot about once a game.

This is where someone with a better mind for stats is going to be able to go a layer deeper to push the discussion that much further. In this case Whitecaps blogger Ben Massey comes in handy because he has a love of numbers and recently took a look at some numbers for goal keepers over at Maple Leaf Forever.

Massey's numbers do not include Kocic or Bendik because their sample is not high large enough for his purposes but he does show Stefan Frei's numbers and shows that there is some level of correlation between total shots faced and save percentage.

In his data Frei ends up having one of the better save percentages over the five year sample period. Massey lists Frei as having a 0.716 save percentage which is the 16th best mark in his data. Looking at just 2011, Frei's last full season, that number is a still respectable 0.684.

Like the basic numbers Massey's expanded stats show that Frei and Bendik both have save percentages right around the average of what you would expect from a starting goal keeper.

So having looked at the numbers it does not really make sense to say that Bendik is the best form keeper in MLS. He gave up three goals in his last two starts yet he has still been garnering praise from around the league. You can tell by watching the game that Bendik is making a difference and coming up with a couple of big saves to keep Toronto in matches week after week but nothing on the stats sheet can quantify that.

The good news for Bendik as Daune Rollins points out over at Canadian Soccer News is that when you combine his distinctly average MLS numbers with his low salary Toronto is getting a very good deal on him. Frei on the other hand is making a fairly average salary for a starting keeper in the league and his numbers are right around what you would expect considering that.

So it is safe to say that Bendik is a good deal and that is numbers are solid but based on watching the games he has been more than solid. The question then is how do you really quantify his performances? Is there a fair way to rank keepers around the league other than save percentages and goals and average or are we stuck waiting for more advanced stats becoming common?

There is of course another option where none of the stats matter when it comes to keepers and that is the traditional attitude that still dominates in many soccer circles. The attitude that the only way to judge a keeper is watch him play because there are just to many elements to their game to be able to quantify them with a single stat. That school of thought still holds some validity but as stats continue to grow in prominence managers will be looking for more and better ways to rank players and make sure they are getting the return for their investments.

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