Toronto FC find themselves in a familiar goalkeeping scenario yet again in 2015: a backup keeper may be rendering what appeared to be a bona fide starter obsolete.
Like Stefan Frei before him, who was displaced by both Milos Kocic and big Joe himself, TFC's starting keeper Joseph T. Bendik may soon find himself back in full health, but still watching from the sidelines as Chris Konopka backstops the team to glory (or at the very least continued mediocrity).
Fans and pundits alike, for the most part, have appreciated what Bendik brought to the table over the past two and a bit seasons. In 2013, Joe Bendik's inaugural season with the club, the keeper was often criticized for his poor distribution, but at the same time was recognized as a capable shot-stopper.
Since that first season, Bendik has maintained, or even improved, his ability to stop the ball, and seems a little more willing to pass to defenders as opposed to hoofing the ball out blindly (or what I like to refer to as "Bendik smash"). And while some still criticize his decision-making on crosses and set pieces, asserting that Bendik is unable to take advantage of his size and dominate the 18-yard box, the fact remains that the 26 year old has made several highlight-reel stops to save TFC from late-game disasters, the likes of which the TFCs of yesteryear knew all too well.
Bendik was often hailed as a hero, prompting Waking The Red's Dave Rowaan to write an article discussing Bendik's status among other MLS keepers and even inspiring one popular Toronto Sun journo to go so far as to suggest the keeper may deserve a call up to the US men's national team (although most considered this a slight over-exaggeration at best).
To his credit, Bendik was ranked #3 and #4 in the 2013 and 2014 (respectively) WTR annual countdowns of the team's best performers, and while his stats were nothing to write home about with his save percentage generally being somewhere in the middle-to-bottom of MLS starting keepers, those same mediocre numbers reflected with decent accuracy what could be seen on the pitch day in and day out- Bendik is a perfectly serviceable starting keeper.
Enter Chris Konopka. History has not been kind to the backup keeper, as Konopka had only played two MLS games, one in 2011 and one in 2012, and had yet to record a win in the league... as he made his way onto the field in an away match for a side that had lost four of their last five.
Sure, his opponent was Philadelphia, but even a weaker MLS side would likely be difficult to face considering all the rust that had accumulated on Konopka's gear. While Toronto FC held on in the keeper's first match for the clean sheet and 1-0 victory, it has to be said that the defense played a tremendous role, and in fact Konopka did look a little tentative positionally in his first game for the Reds.
Since that first outing, Konopka has made three more league appearances and played two Canadian Championship matches. While Montreal found the back of the net three times over the two Voyageurs Cup legs against TFC, Konopka was more of a victim than a culprit in the Impact's opportunities. Meanwhile in league play, Konopka backstopped Toronto to two wins, a draw and a defeat while recording a second clean sheet and conceding only three goals over the four matches.
Konopka also put up a candidate of his own for save of the week and was named to the MLS team of the week after his performance against the New England Revolution. In short, Konopka has also proven a most capable shot-stopper that TFC can rely on. Some evidence below.
And now, to bring up that topic we've all grown to loathe- how about the statistical comparison? While stats tell only a tiny part of the story- after all, the defenders in front of the keeper, the quality of the opposition, and playing at home vs away are all significant factors that the basic statistics ignore... the numbers in this case still do paint an interesting picture.
Over his past two and a bit seasons, Joe Bendik has had save percentages of 66.2%, 64.6%, and in his first few games this season, a slightly more impressive 69.4%. Konopka, by comparison, currently leads the league (if you only include keepers who have played over 90 minutes) in save percentage, with a whopping 84% of shots NOT getting by him.
Now sure enough, Konopka has only faced 19 shots in the 4 games (Bendik had faced 36 in 6 matches)... but anything north of 80% is still a pretty impressive number for an MLS goalkeeper- in fact it's impressive enough that whoscored.com has him rated as the top player for TFC this season, as little as that summary number actually means. Konopka is also 1 for 1 in penalties saved (although he did concede the rebound), whereas big Joe has only stopped 1 out of 9 penalties throughout his MLS career... but of course we do all remember his impressive stop against Vancouver in the Voyageurs Cup last season.
How about the fringe stats- the distribution and command of the box, for example? In terms of distribution, surprisingly Bendik comes out on top. His 7.8 accurate long balls (versus 14.2 inaccurate long balls) per 90, and for that matter his passing percentage of 55%, are both better ratios than Konopka's 4.3 accurate long balls to 9.8 inaccurate and 50.6% passing. As for the command of the box, while the numbers are almost negligibly low for both players, Bendik has recorded more clearances, interceptions, and won more aerial battles than has Konopka.
For those who have argued in the past that Joe Bendik is a fantastic shot stopper, and that based on those merits alone he is a competent starting keeper, Chris Konopka- through only four games of course, has proven to be even better. Konopka also wins all the style points: Bendik's green Shrek outfit and pinkish purple barney get-up don't really flatter a man of his stature (plus Konopka has the beard intimidation factor working for him). The one area I do have to say Bendik has (thus far) proven more capable is rushing out to stop breakaways- he has a way of making himself look large as he runs toward the attacker- even though, surprisingly, Konopka's actually bigger at 6'5, tipping the scales at 228 pounds.
So who should Vanney continue to go with? He could always take the hockey coach route and go with the ‘hot hand'... and quite frankly that would be my recommendation here. There's really no need to take Chris Konopka out just yet. Competition is healthy, especially when keepers have a good relationship and can push each other to perform better, as Greg Vanney seems to imply is indeed the dynamic in this case. I'm definitely not advocating for TFC to do anything rash and offload big Joe... no need to be hasty. In fact, it's probably better to have Bendik breathing down Konopka's neck, putting a little pressure on him, while simultaneously trying as hard as he can in training to win that starting spot back.
In summary- with Bendik re-gaining full health, does Konopka still deserve the starting spot? For now, absolutely.