Although Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper Richard Goddard was outstanding in Saturday's 1-0 win over Charleston, he'll have to fight off a challenge from newcomer Matt Nelson over the last three games of the regular season.
In fact, don't be surprised if Nelson, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound Tampa, Fla., native, gets the start tonight against visiting Minnesota Thunder.
The Whitecaps' goalkeeper situation has been in flux since late June for the United Soccer Leagues First Division team, when starter Tony Caig abruptly returned to England. Since then, backup Goddard has had his moments, but praise from head coach Bob Lilley has been lukewarm. As well, it appears mid-season addition Lutz Pfannenstiel is not in the picture after failing to impress in four starts.
Nelson, 29, has excellent references after backstopping Harrisburg City Islanders to the USL Second Division title last Saturday in a wild 8-7 penalty kicks shootout victory over the Richmond Kickers.
Don't underestimate Nelson's competitive level because he played in the USL's second tier this season. He played four seasons in the USLFD with the Virginia Beach Mariners before the team folded just before the start of the current season. He was among first division goalkeeper statistical leaders last season and had a second division-leading 10 shutouts this year.
"Nobody thought there were any problems until our first paycheque didn't show up, then the league came in trying to find a new investor but that didn't work," said Nelson.
"I called every team in the first division, but they all had first and second keepers already so I signed with Harrisburg. I just wanted to have a good season so I could step back up."
Nelson is on loan to Vancouver for the rest of the season, but his contract is up in the fall so he is looking at this stint as a possible tryout for next season.
"I was told I would have an opportunity, but I'll have to earn it," said Nelson. "This is one of the top organizations in the league. It was always one of the highlights of the season to play here. The fans standing behind the goal, they make it fun, keep you involved. But I hope I won't get the stick from them this time around."
Goddard has had some strong performances this season since being thrust into the No. 1 role, but his record is a mediocre 2-4-5 with four shutouts.
"I have to approach it as a professional," said Goddard, 29, a native of Trinidad and Tobago. "Matt has been brought in to help the team to prepare for the playoff run, hopefully to the final. Every time you practice or play in a game, you're being assessed on your performance. Over the past few months I've worked really hard. When Tony left, it was my job to keep the momentum going."
Lilley wouldn't tip his hand as to who would start in goal.
"Obviously, Nelson's in good form and we thought Goddard played well the other night, so we're in a position of strength right now [in goal] and that competition is good for the team," said Lilley.
"Nelson has a lot of experience in the league. He's not spectacular, but he's very efficient, very consistent. He's coming from a team that plays a similar system to us. Richard is more spectacular, but they both have strengths."
The Caps can clinch a playoff berth with a win over 11th-place Minnesota tonight, but actually need just two points from their last three games to qualify.
Both fullback Geordie Lyall (ankle) and midfielder Jeff Clarke (groin) are doubtful, but fullback Steve Kindel will be back after serving a three-game red card suspension.