William Yarbrough Is Complicating Things

Mar 8, 2023 - 6:00 PM
Colorado Rapids Communications and KV Kortrijk

Well, this is awkward.

Days after new Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Marko Ilić arrived in Denver, donned a New Day Kit with the number one, and met his teammates, the Serbian’s direct competitor stepped up and delivered one of the best shifts of his life.

Veteran shot-stopper William Yarbrough had to make 11 saves to hold a clean sheet against Sporting KC during the Rapids’ home opener on Saturday night, a result which landed the club their first point of the season.

It was a vintage showing from the Mexican-American, who delivered acrobatic save after acrobatic save in the second half—including one impressive dive that didn’t show up on the scoresheet because officials ultimately deemed the attempt offside.

“I hate when the goalkeeper is a feature of the night, that means we’ve given up too many chances,” Robin Fraser told Burgundy Wave after the game. “Having said that, [Yarbrough] was fantastic.”

Some of SKC’s shots—including all four on-target efforts Yarbrough faced in the first half—were easy to handle, but focusing on them feels like spitting in the face of what should be chronicled as an all-timer goalkeeping performance for the 33-year-old.

“He made a number of incredible saves and looked as sharp as could possibly be,” Fraser added when asked of Yarbrough’s performance. “We were really lucky to have Will tonight. For as well as we played, we gave up enough chances that we could have lost as well.”

The U.S. International’s saves were the most a Rapids keeper has ever recorded in a clean sheet in club history, and the result put Yarbrough sole possession of second place on the team’s all-time clean sheet charts with 27.

However, the arrival of Ilić has put Yarbrough’s chances of surpassing Matt Pickens’ club record of 29 in jeopardy.

Yarbrough struggled in net last year. While much of the Rapids’ concessions in 2022 came following defensive errors, the 33-year-old fell behind his 2021 statistical standard, and advanced metrics say he should have made a few more match-winning saves.

That standard clearly spooked Colorado’s Front Office during the off-season. Rapids General Manager Pádraig Smith needs to make a decision whether to exercise the lone club-held option on Yarbrough’s contract in eight months, and he spent the winter wooing several targets across Europe.

First there was Patrick Pentz, who flirted heavily with Colorado before Bayer Leverkusen came in at the 11th hour with a more intriguing proposal. After additional interest in Nigeria’s Francis Uzoho and Slovenia’s Matevž Vidovšek fizzled, the Rapids finally settled on Ilić’s strange arrangement—a half-season loan with a buy option—in late February.

Colorado put pen to paper before opening day, but Ilić didn’t arrive before the club’s trip to Seattle, didn’t train in the days leading up to Saturday’s kickoff, and wasn’t on the bench against Sporting. He also wasn’t selected during Sunday’s friendly between Rapids 2 and the University of Denver.

During that stretch, Yarbrough put up the second-best PSxG-GA figure in the league.

PSxG-GA is a fun little trick employed in the soccer analytics community. Take the expected goals value of a given shot faced by a keeper (“xG”), adjust it for how often the average keeper is to save shots from that spot (Post-Shot, or “PS”), and subtract the goals the keeper has conceded (Goals Allowed, or “-GA”). There’s a lot of math that goes on behind the scenes to get those numbers, and the end result is a data point that does a far greater job of evaluating keepers than looking at save percentage or stops alone. Yarbrough’s positive figure of +1.6 indicates he’s prevented 1-2 more goals than expected in 2023. Only former Rapids keeper Zac MacMath has put up a better figure across MLS’s opening weeks.

Two games is an incredibly small sample size, but Yarbrough’s numbers pass the eye test. Even amidst the team’s 4-0 humiliation against the Seattle Sounders to open the season, he made some good saves. The data says a lesser keeper would have allowed one additional goal.

His Saturday night showcase was the reason Colorado earned their first positive result of the season, brought his season saves total to 15, and got him a well-deserved nod to MLS’s Team of the Matchday for Week 2.

Yarbrough’s early season statement complicates things for the Rapids, who face a ticking clock with Ilić’s contract situation. KV Kortrijk, Ilić’s parent club, says Colorado needs to make up their minds on his loan by July 5.

The club still has 19 MLS matches on their schedule before that deadline. Dropping Yarbrough from the league on his current form would be silly, but it’s not in the team’s “Moneyball” ethos to leave international players on the bench. While Fraser should probably give Ilić the nod in the U.S. Open Cup, Colorado’s cup curse can’t guarantee the Serbian more than one game. Leagues Cup doesn’t start until late July.

The Rapids could buy Ilić outright, drop him, or extend his loan, but they don’t have a lot of time to make the call. Buying the newcomer likely means renegotiating with Yarbrough in the off-season, or even risk losing him entirely. Dropping Ilić would require another incoming transfer. Extending the loan would delay the inevitable.

Fraser didn’t tip his hand on the goalkeeping battle Saturday night, but emphasized the team’s competitive group of players. The Rapids’ preseason camp included 20-year-old homegrown Abraham Rodriguez, who is expected to start at R2 this year, and 16-year-old U.S. Youth International Adam Beaudry from the Rapids Academy. Yarbrough is about to turn 34, while the 25-year-old Ilić is close to entering his prime playing years.

“We look forward to having Marko come in and continue the competition at goalkeeper,” Fraser said flatly.

Yarbrough’s current form complicates things for the Rapids’ brass, but supporters should revel in the veteran’s star showings as long as they last. A run of poor games could force Fraser’s hand and bring about the end of Yarbrough’s multi-season reign between Colorado’s posts.

For now, at the very least, the spot should still be his to lose.

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