TORONTO – There were a lot of questions surrounding Toronto FC ahead of the 2015 Major League Soccer regular season.
How will Sebastian Giovinco settle in to MLS? Did management sufficiently bolster the defence? Can Jozy Altidore score on a regular basis after faltering at Sunderland?
What wasn’t being questioned was Joe Bendik’s role—he was, without a doubt, the Reds’ No. 1 goalkeeper, with 60 league games to his credit over the previous two years. But nine games into the season, Bendik’s status as TFC’s starting ‘keeper is now questionable.
After starting the first six games of the campaign, Bendik has been sidelined for the past few weeks with a nagging foot injury. In his absence, backup Chris Konopka has started the last three MLS games, as well as both legs of the Amway Canadian Championship semifinals, winning plaudits for his mature and at times brilliant play between the posts.
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Konopka has been so good that TFC coach Greg Vanney conceded that Bendik won’t automatically slot back into the starter’s role once he’s fully fit again.
“The way I look at every position … is you gotta earn the spot, (and) you earn the spot through performances and you earn the spot through doing your job, first and foremost. As a team and a collective group, when it’s playing its best and winning games and getting result and you’re doing your job, I’m not going to change much,” Vanney said.
There is an old sports adage that starters shouldn’t lose their place because of injury. Vanney, however, doesn’t necessarily agree, stating when injured players return they have to “win their spot” and prove “they’re the right guy for the team.”
“For Joe, he needs to get healthy and get himself back in form. It’s not ideal to sit out four or five weeks for a goalkeeper and then get yourself back into match form. We’ll assess things as we go but Chris has definitely made case for himself and it’s hard for me to say that I need to pull him out of the net anytime soon,” Vanney said.
“We’ll see. It’s an ongoing battle, and it should be—there should be competition at every position, and I like that Chris is making it a competition. He’s making my job hard, and I like that.”
Konopka was superb in Saturday’s 1-1 draw away to the New England Revolution, making a number of big saves in a man-of-the-match performance that allowed the Reds to leave Boston with a point. His best moment came in the 85th minute when he came out of his area to block a low shot after New England’s Andy Dorman got past the defence.
His efforts were all the more impressive when it was revealed afterwards he was playing with a slight groin problem that limited his mobility.
“Kudos to him for being a man in the box and dealing with crosses, and making some big saves, and coming out off his line and being big. He was pivotal for us getting a result there,” Vanney offered.
In his three MLS starts, Konopka has posted a 1-1-1 record, and earned a clean sheet. He’s made 11 saves along the way—seven alone against New England. Not bad for a goalkeeper who hadn’t made a single MLS appearance for TFC since joining the club via trade in 2013, and who prior to coming to Toronto had only made two MLS starts in his four previous years.
Vanney has been impressed with how Konopa seamlessly came in and made the position his own after being a “bit of an unknown quantity.”
“I can’t say enough good about what Chris has been able to do since coming in on a whim when Joe got hurt. Chris hasn’t had a tonne of games before he got thrown in,” Vanney said.
He later added: “For him, part of it is that most people really haven’t seen him in live MLS action to know exactly what he would put out there. He’s answered the vast majority of questions positively that anybody would have of him. He’s been huge for us.”