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Goalkeeping at Sporting KC: It’s Dufty’s domain

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His focus lifts Melia and all Sporting KC goalkeepers.

MLS: Sporting KC at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a Monday, about 8:00am. Sporting Kansas City Goalkeeping Coach Alec Dufty is in the video room at SKC’s Pinnacle Training Center with the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, Tim Melia. As the video from the most recent game rolls, the room is filled with: “Being in a set position is best here.” “What should I have done there?” “Get your feet settled.” Mostly, the room is filled with honesty.

The New York-born and North Carolina-raised Dufty spent his professional goalkeeping career bouncing around – New York Red Bulls, league reserve pool, D2’s AC St. Louis, and Chicago Fire – before retiring at the end of the 2011 season. His 6’5” frame for crosses, his skill on the ball, and his distribution were his strengths. His muted quickness was his weakness. His career paralleled Melia’s, before Melia (one-year Dufty’s senior) was plucked out of the reserve league by Sporting Kansas City in December of 2014.

Melia became MLS’s Comeback Player of Year in 2015 and has risen to the upper echelon of MLS netminders since with his often-spectacular saves, improved distribution, and organization of one of MLS’s top defenses. Many feel Melia has clearly been the best MLS goalkeeper since 2016, the year Dufty became the goalkeeper coach for Kansas City’s USL team Swope Park Rangers. Before last season, Dufty reached the current apex of his own career, becoming the goalkeeper coach – and overseer of all goalkeepers in the program – with Sporting KC.

Surely, Dufty had much to teach the academy players and Sporting and Swope backups/starters Adrian Zendejas and, now, rookie Eric Dick. But what could he offer Melia? What would set Dufty apart, and, by correlation, set Melia further apart?

Well, it all starts with being vetted by Kansas City’s Technical Director and Manager Peter Vermes. A discerning man known for dedication and detail.

“First and foremost, [Alec] has a good demeanor in the staff,” said Vermes of why he hired Dufty. “He’s very focused on doing his job, very focused on working with the goalkeepers and making sure that they are the best that they can be, but also, he wants to be the best goalkeeper coach as well.”

Perhaps Vermes saw much of himself in the 31-year-old Dufty.

“He’s [on an even keel] with the goalkeepers,” Vermes stated. “He is very clear about his expectations with them, what their everyday habits need to be: ‘If [you] are going to play, you need to perform this way all the time.’ And if they are not, he’s also right there not losing his mind, but he’s right there telling them, ‘Hey, this isn’t good enough.’ He’s very honest.”

Dufty’s Domain

That honesty was huge for Dufty as a player and it is imperative for a working relationship – especially with the mentor being younger than student – when wins and losses and career success are literally on the line in a position that is often scrutinized.

“It’s funny. I don’t look at him as being younger than me,” stated Melia. “The goalkeeper-goalkeeper coach is such a special relationship in the sense that there is so much communication going on. There’s just got to be a real open line to express different views of the game… He’s a coach; he’s my boss. And I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.”

The open banter during video sessions is a prime example as they analyze video from the game before and of the team they will play next to know what they will be working on that week.

“He’s probably the easiest guy in the league to work with because every goal that goes in (in his mind it’s not necessarily his fault) but it’s ‘What can I do better?’ It’s never pointing fingers…,” said Dufty of Melia. “You see why he is where he is now because of his work rate and his mentality.”

As they head to the training ground around 9:30 (a half-hour before the team), the technical-focused Dufty has cameras recording their every move - which is new to Melia – to pick apart the few weaknesses that Melia does have to sharpen his instincts and critical skills. Dufty also carries with him the bits and pieces from the varied coaches he had in his career, like plyometrics, and he balances those out with his own ideas and specifics necessary for his goalkeepers.

“[The videos are] huge for me because he helps me break down each individual piece: the shape of your feet, where your shoulder is going, what’s your hand position. Things like that can get lost a little bit during training because you are just trying to get through so many different types of activities,” Melia explained.

Typically, Dufty will work with Melia, Zendejas, and Dick for 45 minutes before they join in with team. Various scenarios in beginning the team’s possession-focused play is a staple, as are crosses.

“[Sporting Kansas City], in the last year-and-a-half, a lot of the goals we’ve given up have come from crossing situations,” said Dufty. [We don’t always give] balls [Tim] can come for, but we work on his positioning starting spot, so if he has a chance, he can get to the ball, and if he can’t, he can drop into a set position and be ready for a shot.”

Having quick feet in the right position is a critical foundation to a goalkeeper as receiving a ball with the downfield leg is to a field player. Both promote awareness and preparedness. And it was a focus on Tuesday, the day of our interviews.

“Tim’s a very explosive goalkeeper, which is a very good thing, but, at the same time, he moves too much, so he’s not always ready,” Dufty pointed. “We spend a lot of time trying to settle his feet down, get him more set and ready so that he can push for a shot and not be moving one way and try to go the other.”

Said Melia, “It’s just those little critiques that make a world of difference to me because he cares so much, and because he pays attention to everything you do he really wants you to produce the best that you can for the team, and he wants you to develop the best that you can within your range.”

Beyond his analysis and stressing of the finer things, Dufty’s uniqueness goes on. And you better be prepared.

“Physically, if you can stop his shot, then you can stop anybody’s shot in the league,” Vermes said in awe. “One of the things with the ‘keepers is that they need to be really under pressure in their training sessions. It needs to be more difficult than a game. He provides that environment.”

Melia provided an insight into Dufty’s quirky side, “Alec is a little quiet when you first meet him. But that’s not his personality… He’s not going to run up to anyone and just start rambling, but he is actually very funny. He’s witty, and you have to listen for it. He sends out these little daggers, and if you are listening for it, it’s hilarious.”

Living in Vermes world

When revealing what it is like coaching under a manager who, as a former player, had a variety of experiences both domestically and internationally, who, as a coach, has coached at various levels and has found great success in MLS, and who is a U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame inductee, Dufty reveals he and Vermes are a prime fit.

“This is the first MLS job I’ve had. But it’s a different experience. He’s very intense, but very focused on the team and getting the team better and where they need to be. Details are a big part of it, like even just when you watch the guys set up the field, the way every line is perfectly one way. Everything is in order,” he said.

“It sets the tone for the team that you do every single thing that you can: take care of all the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.”

It also helps that Vermes played as a center back during the latter part of his career as the center back and the goalkeeper have a similar all-encompassing view of the play in front of them.

“He’s a coach that is good to work with because if a goal goes in, he doesn’t [say], ’What’s Tim doing there?’ It’s ‘Why did this happen first? Why did this happen? Why did this happen?’ And then, ‘Why did Tim do that?’ He’s looking at every little thing; it’s not just straight to the goalkeeper,” Dufty explained.

An overseer

Dufty came up through the ranks when most MLS teams didn’t have academies, or even an affiliated USL team or second-team. It made for some dark days.

“It’s really good what we have for the young guys here now where they can train with the MLS team, but then play games with Swope on the weekends. That was something back when I was playing that was severely missing,” he said. “Every once in a while, you would get reserve league games. But they were not good. It would be the next morning [after an MLS match] or after the game that night. And the guys would just not be into it.”

Going from that to overseeing goalkeeping for an entire club is quite a change.

“[Alec’s] very in-tune to what is going on with all the goalkeepers in the club. He always takes a look at the younger ‘keepers that we are looking to bring in to make sure they fit the positional characteristics that we are looking for…,” said Vermes. “That’s probably the area that he’s growing the most in that he’s having to oversee more than he did in the past. But he’s doing a very good job of it.”

Dufty feels the future is bright for the 1st-team with Zendejas and Dick being groomed. “Both have huge potential,” he said as he lauded Zendejas’ organization, presence, and skill with the ball at his feet and Dick being “an unbelievable shot stopper”, as well as admiring his quickness.

“The group, as a whole, is great,” Dufty expressed. “They are all good guys who want to push each other, and they are pushing for the starting spot but at the same time have a good relationship where they talk to each other about different things and they all work together to get better.”

Vermes continued, “He’s made significant improvement with all the goalkeepers with the ball at their feet… He’s doing everything that he has to, and he’s getting more out of them in areas that I didn’t expect that he would get as quick as he has.”

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On certain days, the goalkeepers will go to the gym at Pinnacle after training and lift. On one of those days, Dufty will review video with Zendejas and Dick on the recent game and who they will play next. The day usually ends for Dufty at 5:00pm.

On game day, Dufty relaxes in the lead up, “If it’s not right [at this point], not gonna fix it,” he said, reflecting the philosophy that “You do every single thing that you can: take care of all the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.”

He will go to Pinnacle and workout on his own and hang out before looking over stuff on the opposing team, like penalties, and will arrive at Children’s Mercy Park some three hours before kickoff.

Postgame, Dufty will embrace Melia. If any major concerns popped up in moments, Dufty will conference with Vermes. Otherwise, it’s a day off tomorrow before the analysis of the minutiae begins again to make the budding, the good, and the best even better.