Rutgers shapes future of goalkeepers

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- For Rutgers senior Erin Guthrie, becoming one of the nation's best women's soccer goalkeepers means being the second-best keeper on the practice field every day.

The result is an atypical apprenticeship that has helped guide a Scarlet Knights team beset by injuries this season to the first top-10 ranking in program history. But at a position that remains a source of skepticism about women's soccer, Guthrie's partnership with assistant coach Karina LeBlanc resonates beyond the banks of the Raritan River.

Soccer inevitably grows faster, stronger and better from one generation to the next. It does so not only because that's the natural progression of athletes but also because it's the natural progression of coaches. And yet no position pulls from as small a talent pool of both players and coaches -- or arguably demands more of them -- than goalkeeping.

As LeBlanc put it, "You have to want to be a goalkeeper because there's a pressure that comes with it; there's a certain -- people always say keepers are weird."

She has some leeway to mock the personality quirks and eccentricities ascribed to those who would stand alone in goal and stand apart from their teammates in more ways than the occasionally rainbow-defying colors keepers wear on the field. She's part of the club, after all, with an emphasis on the present tense.

Now in her fifth year on Rutgers coach Glenn Crooks' staff, LeBlanc also started 19 of 20 games this year for the Los Angeles Sol in the inaugural season of Women's Professional Soccer, where she led the league in clean sheets for a team that reached the championship match. Still just 29 years old, the British Columbia native was also a member of the past three Canadian World Cup teams and last summer's Olympic team.

Growing up in New Jersey, Guthrie was every bit as aware of LeBlanc as boys her age playing the position might have been of names like current Seattle Sounders keeper Kasey Keller or retired European star Peter Schmeichel.

"Being a keeper and following professional soccer and everything like that, you know who she is," Guthrie recalled of her youth, when LeBlanc played for the Boston Breakers in the Women's United Soccer Association and later the New Jersey Wildcats in the W-League. "And being able to watch her play and then having her in your practice is a really cool thing."

That later inspiration aside, Guthrie's initial introduction to the position had as much to do with good fortune as anything else. At just about the time LeBlanc was beginning her own college career at the University of Nebraska, a 10-year-old Guthrie was volunteering to come out of the field and play goal because her team was short of players one day.

"There was a penalty kick, and I saved it, and I was like 'I could kind of get into this,'" Guthrie remembered. "So then I started trying out for teams as goalkeeper."

As a freshman at Rutgers, she tied for the Big East lead with 14 shutouts, six more than the team had managed the previous season and three more than the program's single-season record. But before she first stepped on the field, she told LeBlanc her goal was to be the best keeper in the Big East, if not one of the best in the country. So even as the accolades rolled in, coach and player worked through the footwork, organization and other minutiae required of keepers to not only make the saves people remember but also read a game and position a defense in ways that minimize the need for such acrobatics.

"It's physical, tactical, technical and mental," LeBlanc said. "And you have to train all those things as a goalkeeper. You can't cheat any corners because … you see a lot of goalkeepers will make the big save and the soft saves will go in, so you have to train everything. And there's been times where I know Erin's probably not been my favorite fan because I'll see something and we'll keep working on it."

Guthrie can also make the highlight save when needed -- rarely more memorably than in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament, when after saving seven shots in regulation and two overtimes, she secured the upset by turning away two more shots in a penalty shootout. But it's the command of a game and understanding of what a keeper must do in all the minutes she's not springing toward a shot that enable her to stand out.

Guthrie was undeniably good the moment she arrived; she's much better four seasons later.

The thing is the game has changed and the position has changed. I think where the gap is that the good goalkeeping training is not there.

-- Rutgers assistant coach and professional goalie Karina LeBlanc

"She's more agile than she was in those early years; her mobility is, I think, much better than it was in those first couple of years," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum said. "I'm sure that's a combination of the work Karina has done with her and Glenn and these guys with their strength and conditioning. But I think that's where she's making some strides. She looks like she's really honed in on what she wants to achieve."

LeBlanc appears at ease shifting from competition to coaching and back again, a sharp rebuttal to the idea that world-class athletes often struggle to transition from playing to teaching. In her mind, the two tasks are reflections of the same passion for the position.

LeBlanc is also not deaf to the criticism, spanning both the snide and sincere, that soft goals and athletic shortcomings on the part of keepers inhibit the overall growth of the women's game. She just thinks the cause and effect aren't as clearly defined as the critics choose to believe.

"The thing is the game has changed and the position has changed," LeBlanc said. "I think where the gap is that the good goalkeeping training is not there. There's a lot of trainers out there who go out and train because they learned stuff from a book. And I think for the position, you have to have some type of experience because a huge part of it is on the mental side. … I think there's a lot of good goalkeeper coaches out there, yes. But there's also a lot of average goalkeeper coaches and they teach bad habits."

And so one of the best keepers of the present teaches one who will help carry the position into the future. Though they may collectively be "weird," keepers understand one another.

"Having Karina as my coach, there's not, like, one other person in this whole country that gets that training exposure day in and day out," Guthrie said. "It's just awesome."

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.