FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Nearly a full decade has passed since the New England Revolution have entered camp with a bona fide goalkeeping battle on their hands. Not a minor rivalry or mild controversy. A true, mano-a-mano battle.
After longtime keeper Matt Reis retired in December, the local XI didn't go out and acquire an expensive replacement. Rather, it placed its bets on the winner of an intriguing duel between two of Reis' former apprentices: Bobby Shuttleworth and Brad Knighton.
With the gloves -- or, in this instance, the mitts -- off after three preseason games, Revolution general manager Michael Burns is keeping a close eye on the proceedings.
"Both Bobby and Brad want to be the No. 1 extremely badly," Burns said. "It's a very healthy competition, and they've both proven at times -- with Bobby here and Brad with other clubs -- that they are capable."
The operative phrase, of course, is "at times." After all, if either Shuttleworth or Knighton had put together a complete and solid season in the past, well, there would be no battle between the sticks this winter.
In one corner, you have Shuttleworth, the incumbent who has shown flashes of what it takes to be an elite keeper in MLS over the last two years in particular. While coming in to spell Reis, who battled injuries last year, the 26-year-old has commanded his area well, and has made a number of heady, highlight-reel saves. During the course of his five-year career, Shuttleworth has posted a 1.39 GAA, and has collected 13 clean sheets in 43 contests.
In the opposite corner, you have Knighton, the proverbial prodigal son who started his career in New England in 2007 before leaving after the 2009 season. He served as Joe Cannon's backup in Vancouver during the last two years. Like they did for Shuttleworth, injuries opened the door for Knighton to showcase his skills, which include dazzling athleticism and a knack for making some enterprising decisions inside the area. His career stats over his six seasons in MLS include a 1.34 GAA, with seven clean sheets in 35 games.
Making the duel even more intriguing is the fact that Knighton was re-acquired via trade only hours after Reis called it a career -- a sign that, perhaps, Shuttleworth didn't have the full confidence of those in the front office.
While both have shown the potential to become top-choice keepers, Burns is looking for the one quality that has eluded both Shuttleworth and Knighton over the course of their careers: consistency.
"The question is, are either of them, or both of them, capable to do it from Game 1 to Game 34?" Burns said. "Matt had been here for so long, and it's [always] kind of been 'Matt's in goal.' This year, it may be a situation where one beats out the other, or it may be a situation frankly where they're both seeing games this year."
Through the first three preseason games, that's exactly what has transpired. Shuttleworth started and went the full 90 in the opener, while Knighton followed suit in the following match. Knighton also came on for the final 30 minutes of the third match, spelling third-stringer Luis Soffner. The results? Both Shuttleworth and Knighton have conceded only a single goal so far, and based on their preseason form to date, it's tough to tell who has the edge.
Either way, Burns isn't concerned about the situation between the sticks. He's confident that, despite the sizeable shoes that'll need to be filled in the wake of Reis' retirement, the goalkeeping battle is sure to sharpen both contestants.
"We feel like we have two goalkeepers that are capable of being No. 1s in this league," Burns said. "It's really up to them to show Jay [Heaps] who deserves to be the No. 1 from the get-go."