CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy understandably had reason to be concerned when starting goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts was lost to a broken arm on June 25 in a game against the San Jose Earthquakes. But they also weren’t alarmed.
Waiting in the wings was Josh Saunders, who was a member of the club’s 2005 MLS Cup winning side before rejoining the Galaxy, first on loan and then on a permanent basis, in September 2008. Long saddled, unfairly in the mind of Galaxy goalkeeper coach Ian Feuer, with the tag of being the best backup goalkeeper in MLS, Saunders has been a revelation for LA, allowing just more than one goal per game while in place of the 2010 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, who has recovered from the arm injury but remains out with tightness in his right quadriceps muscle.
Playing in 22 of the club’s 36 games in all competitions (including MLS, the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League), Saunders has kept nine shutouts, including seven in the league, often doing so with a string of highlight reel saves. His four second half saves against Columbus on Saturday night helped move the Galaxy to the verge of the Supporters’ Shield and he has helped get LA into a position where they have a chance to advance to the next stage of the Champions League, despite having lost their last two games in the competition.
Saunders is expected to man the nets again in Wednesday’s Champions League showdown with Monarcas Morelia at The Home Depot Center (7pm PT, FOX Soccer, Telefutura, concacaf.com, lagalaxy.com/gamedaylive). He has been in goal for each of the first four games that his team played in the tournament so far, keeping a clean sheet in home wins over Motagua and Alajuelense.
“I think we saw some of this last year as well,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said of Saunders, who has accounted for seven of the team’s 16 shutouts this season in MLS, one shy of the league record. “We know he’s a good goalkeeper.”
Saunders, who had never before played more than six league games in a single season prior to this year, admitted this is as good as he’s felt in quite some time.
“Obviously when you string some games together it’s a little easier,” he said. “Your comfort level is there and your confidence is a little better.
“I feel good playing right now.”
Feuer, in his fifth season overseeing the Galaxy goalkeepers, said the difference in Saunders from when he first re-joined the club late in the 2008 season to today, is like night and day.
“He’s come such a long way,” Feuer said. “His attitude is a testament to how he’s gotten better. There are no words to describe his attitude and professionalism, his work ethic, his relationship with Ricketts and myself.
“I’m trying to find a bad word, but I really can’t find any.”
Saunders said he has taken great pride in being a good teammate and supporting Ricketts, who is often regarded as being among the elite goalkeepers in MLS.
“You always want to be there helping the other guy,” Saunders said. “Yeah, you always want to play, but if you show any signs of being upset or a little discouraged it doesn’t help at all.
“You’ve got to stay positive and when your chance comes, you’ve got to take it.”
His teammates certainly have taken notice, not that they ever had any doubts about him.
“Josh has a nice, calming effect,” defender Todd Dunivant said. “He’s stepped up all year like we knew he would. It’s not a surprise at all. Seeing how many shutouts he has this year and the stats he’s put up, it speaks for itself.
“We’re thrilled to have Josh as another option. He’s a starter in this league, no question about it.”