Union goalkeepers are in good hands with Phil Wheddon, a goalkeeping guru

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Phil Wheddon spoke with PhillySportsNetwork.com to discuss his plans for 2020 in his first season as first-team goalkeeper coach. On January 14th, Philadelphia Union announced Phil Wheddon’s promotion to the first-team goalkeeper coach. With two decades worth of experience ranging from the collegiate level to both the US Men’s and Women’s teams, Wheddon brings with him both a wealth of knowledge and an abundance of goalkeeping passion.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Week one of pre-season camp is coming to a close today in Wilmington, DE at the 76ers Fieldhouse. Soon the club will travel to Clearwater, FL where the warm sunshine will greet Union players and staff for the sixth consecutive season in preparation for what should be another successful MLS campaign.

But there’s been a small change in the technical staff this off-season. Phil Wheddon earned a well-deserved promotion to first-team goalkeeper coach and along with it the title of Director of Goalkeeping. The opening and subsequent promotion was planned for some time prior to the off-season beginning due to an assistant coaching vacancy – one that former goalkeeper coach Ola Nikolov wanted and earned.

In steps, Wheddon, with his wealth of knowledge and decorated history of training some of the best US goalkeepers to ever play, coaching both the US Men’s and Women’s teams prior to landing a gig within the Union organization – Tim Howard, Kasey Keller, Hope Solo, and Brianna Scurry are just a few that Wheddon trained. Wheddon seems eager to make a positive impact with the Union as well.

“Goalkeeping is my passion,” said Wheddon. “That’s why I was brought in here. This was really the plan all along. But obviously, it’s always an honor to be moved up to the first team full time.”

Wheddon has been with the club for the past year in an on and off again fashion. But he’s maintained positive relationships with goalkeepers which helps make his transition a smooth change.

“It’s been great,” said Wheddon of his first week at camp. “I have a rapport with the goalkeepers already. We all have good relationships. That’s the most important part to start off with.”

Another positive for Wheddon is the environment the Union organization has created and fostered over the past few years in training.

“The environment here is a positive learning environment and that’s the environment I want to work in,” said Wheddon.

That positive learning environment has helped Wheddon make immediate impacts in week one of camp. He’s already managed to identify a few aspects of each goalkeeper’s skills that could use improvement while also implementing changes in the way goalkeepers will have to play in order to fit Philadelphia’s new high-pressing aggressive style of play.

In terms of how exactly the keeper’s role will change in 2020 due to the new tactical style, Wheddon mentioned there is much more importance placed on their decision making and how they manage the space behind the back four (or three).

“The goalkeeper now has to play a bit higher off the line and be willing to get off the line quicker,” said Wheddon. “The ability to play with their feet has to be much better to come out and clear balls or maintain possession.”

In addition to those minor enhancements in skill from Union keepers, preparing for teams to attack in different ways is also at the forefront of Wheddon’s mind.

“The way that teams attack us is going to be different as well. They’ll play more through balls or they’ll play balls over the top. There will be fewer opportunities for them to get deep down into the corners and serve the goal area in crossing situations,” said Wheddon. “The goalkeeper has got to be good at defending the space behind the back four.”

Andre Blake, the Union’s only MLS All-Star, is the assumed number one keeper. There’s no question Blake has tremendous skill and displays that routinely. Yet last season there were times when Blake struggled in key decisive moments which left him a step or two behind plays – especially those moments when he needed to think quickly and decide whether to leave his line or stay home. It’s a potential weakness that could be exploited given the new aggressive style of play the Union hopes to implement this season.

But Wheddon is on top of it.

“Obviously, Andre [Blake] has exceptional talent,” said Wheddon. “Along with exceptional talent, he’s got exceptional potential. He hasn’t reached his peak yet. We’ve identified a few things that could potentially make him even better.”

Those minor tweaks to his game would include the way he sets prior to a shot, those “milliseconds” of time when a keeper accelerates or decelerates when facing a shot on goal situation are monumental according to Wheddon. “They’re very small things but in goalkeeping, small things make a big difference.”

Wheddon’s coaching style fits in perfectly with Philadelphia’s positive learning environment as well. He’s not a coach who demands a goalkeeper do this or that. He prefers more of a conversation between him and his players as opposed to a list of demands. It’s that style that should not only aid Blake but young keeper Matt Freese as well.

“There are always little tweaks. The way that I like to coach is to show the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing,” said Wheddon. “Here are the things I’ve seen, how do you feel about it, how can we make it better – it’s kind of like a mutual discussion.”

As for Freese, Wheddon sees a lot of untapped potential.

“The thing for Matt [Freese], it’s about refining what works for him,” said Wheddon. “He’s very athletic and he’s very driven. He wants to be great. He doesn’t want to be good, he wants to be great which is fantastic for me to work with someone who is so driven. He’s very enthusiastic which is also a luxury for any coach.”

Along with Freese, Joe Bendik and his several years of MLS experience add to a very deep goalkeeping core. All three should ideally push each other in camp and in training moving forward. Union II keeper Todd Morton is also in pre-season camp, yet another player with the potential to be special.

“We have four very different goalkeepers all at different stages in their career. But it’s all very healthy competition so we know that Andre needs to be at his very best to maintain that number one status,” said Wheddon.

Last season, Philadelphia conceded over 50 goals across all competitions. It’s a number that Union Sporting Director Ernst Tanner has mentioned a few times this off-season as one that needs to decrease. Consider it a top priority for the club in 2020.

Wheddon mentioned the high amount of goals the club allowed in the final 10 minutes of the first and second half as another major area of weakness that should be a focal point moving forward. In 2019, Philadelphia allowed over 21 goals in those final ten minutes – nearly half of all goals conceded.

“Inevitably, goal are scored in a game. It’s a game of failures. We just want to eliminate the failures from a goalkeeping standpoint,” said Wheddon. “It’s our responsibility to manage the back four or three, so we’ve got to make sure our defenders are locked in as well for the full 45 minutes [of each half].”

As for how Wheddon will impact the club from the first team down through the Academy ranks, Wheddon will hope to improve the development and training of keeper coaches at all levels of the organization

“I believe we have to develop goalkeeper coaches, so part of my role here at the club is going to be Director of Goalkeeping and developing goalkeeper coaches within the club,” said Wheddon. “I run an international goalkeeping conference and the goal is to develop goalkeeper coaches. In this country, we don’t have enough opportunities for goalkeeper coaches to learn.”

With his passion for goalkeeping and incredible knowledge of the position, Philadelphia is in very capable hands in terms of goalkeeping. Fans should hope to see improvements in the way keepers approach split-second decision making in games and can rest assured that young keepers like Freese and those within the Academy will benefit greatly from Wheddon and his methods. For now, Blake will hope to soak in that knowledge in order to transform his game to new heights in 2020.

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

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