Could Alex Bono Join U.S. Goalkeeping Elites?
October 16, 2014
But before they starred for the U.S. national team, played in World Cups, and won myriad trophies with their club teams, both Meola and Friedel were college standouts at Virginia and UCLA, respectively, and they remain the only goalkeepers to ever win the MAC Hermann Award, college soccer’s annual player of the year honor.
Based on the season he’s having so far, Bono, 20, a junior goalkeeper for 12-1-0 Syracuse, is a legitimate Hermann contender, and winning the award would—at least at the collegiate level—put him alongside that esteemed company.
“I can’t think of myself in their category. Those guys are legends,” said Bono, a six-foot-three native of Baldwinsville, N.Y., who is in his third season as a starter. “You can’t compare what I’ve done this year to what they’ve done.”
As professionals and national team players, no.
But Bono’s numbers so far this season rival those of any goalkeeper in Division I history, including Meola and Friedel. Through 13 games Bono has registered 10 shutouts and allowed just three goals. His 0.23 goals-against average and 0.93 save-percentage lead the nation and are challenging NCAA records for each category.
Despite the gaudiness of his stats, Bono is nonplussed.
“There’s still a ways to go in the season and a lot of good teams left to play. Those numbers could change fast if we have a let up at all,” said Bono, a broadcast journalism major in Syracuse’s prestigious Newhouse School. “I know it’s a cliché, but we really are just trying to win one game at a time and get better each game. I try to stay away from record and award talk as much as I can."Right now it doesn’t mean anything.”
It helps Bono’s shot at the Hermann that he’s putting up these numbers while playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which Syracuse joined in 2013. The ACC is to college soccer what the SEC is to football—the toughest conference in the country. The Orange currently sit atop its standings and its No. 4 RPI ranking is the highest of any ACC school.
“It’s the most competitive and best quality league in the country,” said Bono. “Three of the Final Four teams and the national champion last year were from the ACC, which speaks to the level and how good the conference is. To be in a conference like the ACC means you’re playing against the best players in the country and being tested every game.”
Also helping Bono’s Hermann case is that few attacking players—who usually claim the award—are having the types of seasons that makes them obvious frontrunners. Saint Louis senior Robbie Kristo and Georgetown junior Brandon Allen each have nine goals while Washington senior Darwin Jones (8 goals, 4 assists) and Penn State sophomore Connor Maloney (8 goals, 2 assists) likely merit some Hermann consideration, as well.
Meanwhile UCLA senior midfielder Leo Stolz, a finalist for the award last year who is considered one of the best pro prospects in college soccer, has put up modest stats so far—five goals, zero assists. One dark horse could be Oregon State senior Khiry Shelton, who has amassed seven goals and 10 assists, though he padded his numbers with two tallies and three assists against Division II Northwest Christian.
Good numbers, yes. But not the kind that separate them from the pack, thus creating an opening that a goalkeeper on a record-challenging pace could fill.
“The best chance to win awards is to be on good teams,” said Syracuse coach Ian McIntyre. “That’s got to be the focus, not just (Bono’s) but the entire team. But having said that, Alex has done everything we’ve asked him of him, really, not just this year but since he got here.”
Bono has started every game since arriving on campus. He made several All Freshman teams in 2012 when he posted a 0.85 GAA with 10 shutouts and, more importantly, helped the Orange to the round of 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Last year Syracuse struggled as it adjusted to the ACC. The club went 7-0-0 outside the conference but 3-7-1 in it and missed the NCAA tournament. Bono, however, posted a 1.03 GAA with eight shutouts and was third-team All ACC.
“We threw him in the deep end his first year here. Since day one, he continues to get better and is becoming a very good college goalkeeper,” said McIntyre. “Each year his training habits are better and he’s carrying those over to the games. Goalkeepers are like pilots, they get better with experience and air miles. He’s had that here at Syracuse. Alex tends to always make the big save when it’s needed.”
Bono is also benefitting from playing behind a veteran defense. This year McIntyre switched to a-3-5-2 formation with a veteran backline that features Skylar Thomas and Jordan Murrell, seniors from nearby Ontario, and Tyler Hilliard, a redshirt junior from Georgia. Besides leading the nation’s stingiest defense, the trio has also combined for seven goals and seven assists (with six of the helpers coming from Murrell).
“They’ve been terrific this year. Honestly, they deserve more of the credit than I do,” said Bono. “It’s huge to have the veterans in front of me because they know the ropes. Having their experience only adds to us as a defense and makes us better.”
Playing a 3-5-2 also helps, Bono contends. “Because of their experience, we can afford to put another man in the midfield and that helps us going forward and keeping pressure off us,” he said. “I think (playing a 3-5-2) has also helped me as a goalkeeper. It gives me more responsibility, both organizationally and with my feet.”
Despite his accolades, Bono somehow hasn’t gotten much recognition from U.S. youth national teams. In high school he was in some camps with the U-18 national team but was never called up to the U-20 national team during the last cycle. A call-up to the U-23 national team remains a possibility but “it’s not something I can control so I don’t worry about it.”
That isn’t to suggest Bono is without pro aspirations. In the spring of his senior year of high school, his youth club, Empire FC, became an affiliate with the New England Revolution and changed its name to Empire Revolution. According to a 2012 press release at the time of the announcement, Empire players would become eligible to be signed by the Revolution as homegrown players. However, Bono said he was told that only applied to players who were with Empire beginning the season he was already in college.
"The way (the Revolution) explained it to me, if it had happened a year earlier I’d have been (homegrown) eligible but they don’t think I am because (the affiliation) happened too late in my senior year (of high school). But there’s a lot of gray area too, they said, so you never know.”
("There's a lot of gray area so you never know" could be the official MLS motto when it comes to player acquisition rules.)
However, as part of the affiliation arrangement Bono has trained with the Revolution and even played in a reserve team game in the summer of 2012.“I trained with them for a week that summer and again for a week this summer,” he said. "It was a great experience and I got some really great feedback from the Revolution coaches. It’s a level I aspire to be at and I think I can play at that level. I still have some things I can improve on to get to there but I think I can hang at that level.”
Even if he can’t get a homegrown offer from the Revolution, his season will most likely get some interest in a Generation Adidas offer to leave school early. “It’s not something I’m looking to do but I would certainly listen and if it’s a good offer I’d seriously think about it,” Bono said.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned American goalkeeping royalty. Both Meola and Friedel left school early but they did so with one thing Bono isn’t shy about coveting, a national championship.“That’s the goal,” he said. “When you do well in this conference you have a shot at the Final Four and after that, anything’s possible. Winning that would mean so much more than any individual award.”
What are your thoughts on Bono's Hermann chances? Should he be allowed to sign a homegrown contract with the Revolution? Barring that, should MLS make him a Generation Adidas offer? Give us your take below.Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter