Chris Eylander had to make a lot of adjustments in 2009.
First, he had to adjust to assuming the role of the backup. With Kasey Keller in front of him on the Sounders FC depth chart, it would take a Herculean effort to overtake the starting keeper.
He posted six clean sheets in his rookie season and followed it up by leading the Sounders to the USL title in 2007 behind 13 shutouts and a 0.84 GAA. He also took the Sounders to the US Open Cup semifinal, a feat he would repeat in 2008 with a dominating performance that would earn him tournament MVP honors after posting a 453-minute scoreless streak. Add to that his 10 shutouts in 2008 and he joins a long list of accomplished goalkeepers to play for the Sounders in the USL that includes Premier League keeper Marcus Hahnemann and MLS keeper Preston Burpo, among others.
Through it all, he never had been a backup and needed to learn how to maintain confidence and sharpness even without the weekly gauge of match play. He credits the coaching of goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra and Keller for aiding that growth while having a limited role on the field.
"One of the ways that I’ve grown a lot in this last year, even without playing and only a limited amount of training, has been through my conversations with Kasey and Tom," said Eylander, 25. "I have a much better understanding of my positioning and angles, which is a very big part of the game as a goalkeeper. Although I didn’t get out there and dive around as much (as Keller), I did improve in those areas."
Next, he had to adjust to the jump from the USL level to the MLS level – something he marvels at even a year later.
A master of his craft in the USL, Eylander had not seen much in the realm of the execution and talent of MLS players.
"When you make a step up to the next level, it’s much more unforgiving," he said. "In the USL, I could spill a ball into a bad position and I could pick it up or my defenders would clear it away. You can’t get away with that in MLS. Players are just that much better, that much sharper, that much better in the attack, that much better finishing."
In addition to the talent on the field, technology at the top US level was a change for him. Gone were the straight-flying, simple to handle balls of the USL, replaced with a much more dynamically flying ball in MLS.
"The ball that we used in the USL flew pretty true. It didn’t really move too much. The balls over these last two years in MLS have so much more movement," Eylander said. "A lot of times, rather than trying to catch a ball that’s moving a lot, you try to deaden it or control it. If you try and catch it, you’ll spill it out in an area that’s not good, but if you can deaden it or control it in front of you, you can go get that ball."
Furthering that adjustment period has been the league’s change to a new ball in 2010, the adidas Jabulani that will be used in this year's FIFA World Cup, which Eylander says has more movement in flight than the balls MLS used in 2009.
Finally, he’s adjusting to injuries – a problem previously unforeseen in his career.
Because of a knee injury, he wasn’t on the bench when Keller was red-carded April 11 against the Kansas City Wizards. He was healthy enough to start in a 2-0 defeat to Chivas USA the following week, but that would be his only league start.
Even the US Open Cup, which had been his calling card while starting for the Sounders in the USL, proved troublesome as he was only healthy enough to start one qualifying game against Real Salt Lake.
After recovering from his left knee problems plaguing him in 2009, surgery on his right knee to clean up some meniscus damage now has him feeling back to his Open Cup MVP form.
He trained in the off-season with one of his old goalkeeper coaches, Rob Walker, and did weight training to ease the learning curve, building his technical base as he prepares for a return to form in 2010.
"I’m striking the ball clean like I used to. I’m incredibly happy about how physically I feel and the camp has gone really well so far," Eylander said. "The last month and a half before preseason I did a lot of technical work, so I came in pretty sharp. I’ve played pretty well so far and I’m trying to build on that each day."
Eylander and the Sounders FC will face the Vancouver Whitecaps in a training game on Thursday at 10:30 am PT to conclude the second leg of training camp in Casa Grande, Arizona. There will be a live blog of that match on SoundersFC.com. The club will return to Seattle for three days off following that match before heading to Spain on Monday, February 15 for more training.