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Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono making case to be permanent starter

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Greg Vanney is going to have a tough decision to make once Clint Irwin returns from injury.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Toronto FC Gerry Angus-USA TODAY Sports

It was a roar the fans at BMO Field usually reserve only for incredible goals. But after Alex Bono swept away what looked like a sure equalizer from Cyle Larin on Friday, the stadium erupted.

Early in the second half of Toronto FC’s match against Orlando City, Larin was played in behind the Toronto defence. Bono made an excellent initial save but the ball trickled behind him, and Larin was about to tap it into the back of the net when TFC’s keeper turned, dove and knocked the ball to safety. It was a game-saving moment.

“I just kind of felt it behind me going towards the line and just hoped I was close enough to reach an arm out,” Bono told the media after the match.

The save was the highlight of what has been a solid run of form lately for the 23-year-old. He was especially strong during the club’s perfect 3-0 home stand, allowing just two goals and making seven saves, many of which helped the team preserve points.

On Friday, as Toronto were being significantly outplayed by Orlando in the second half, Bono made two huge saves. It is pretty hard to say a goalie “stole a game” in soccer in the same vein as often happens in hockey, but that second-half performance from Bono was as close as a keeper in this sport can come.

“When it’s a league of margins and margins are small you have to have a goalkeeper who can make saves,” said Toronto coach Greg Vanney afterwards. He later added: “If you have a goalkeeper that makes saves, it is worth points.”

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

Bono initially took over the starting goalkeeper position after Clint Irwin suffered a hamstring injury in TFC’s home opener. The 23-year-old has now been in net for all four of Toronto’s wins so far this season.

With Irwin on the verge of returning, Vanney has a difficult decision on his hands. Does he stick with the hot hand in Bono, or give the more experienced Irwin his net back? When faced with the same decision last year he chose Irwin. Things might be different now, but Vanney is keeping his cards close to his chest.

“I think there’s a healthy competition there for the position,” said Vanney. “Clint, when he is ready to get back he’ll have his opportunities. By the time we get to the stretch we will have very much solidified who [is starting]. But that’s not for me to put out there today.”

When it comes to goalkeepers, it is pretty difficult to find truly meaningful metrics by which to measure them. While there are a lot of numbers listed above for your reference, a lot are more team-dependent stats than individual ones. Any time Bono gets a clean sheet, for example, he is quick to remind everyone of all the others who have contributed to it. Goals against average and win percentage can also be lumped into that category.

The two stats that tell us most about the individual keeper are save percentage and GA-xGA. Since the start of the 2016 season, Bono has stopped 72.5 per cent of the shots he has faced, while Irwin has stopped 68.8 per cent. It is far from a perfect way to quantify goalkeeping quality, but it is at least a little more revealing.

A better way to look at goalkeeping performance, though, is GA-xGA. According to data collected from American Soccer Analysis, Bono also has the edge in this stat as well. Basically, GA-xGA (or goals against - expected goals against) looks at how many more goals a keeper allowed than expected given the quality of the shots he faced (further explanation here).

Vanney mentioned after the game against Orlando that TFC uses a somewhat similar model to evaluate keepers around the league. He didn’t offer much in the way of methodology, but said the club has a system that calculates how many points a goalie earned his team per year. This is based on how many saves a goalie made on high-quality scoring opportunities.

MLS: Sporting KC at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

To be fair to Irwin, there are some factors working against him. The data above only shows regular season, and would have reflected better on Irwin if it had included his stellar playoff numbers. Moreover, the aforementioned injuries that Irwin has suffered have clearly affected him at times, while Bono has stayed healthy.

Bono, for his part, is focused on himself. He still has the net for the time being, and is looking to continue to build on his recent success.

“Every game I feel more and more comfortable and trying to find the form that I had in the string of games I had last season,” said Bono after the Orlando match. “[I’m just] trying to keep those performances and opportunities that I’ve been given, trying to keep riding those out as much as I can.”

Irwin’s latest injury was always likely to leave Vanney with a tough decision on his hands upon his return. Bono’s play of late has only made that decision more difficult.