When the Galaxy signed Jaime Penedo 16 months ago, they knew they were getting a gem of a goalkeeper. Just maybe not the perfect gem.
“I was a diamond in the rough,” Penedo acknowledges now. “And a diamond in the rough has to be polished.”
A season of buffing later, Penedo is someone the Galaxy will be counting on to help it reach next month’s Major League Soccer championship game for the fourth time in six years.
The Panamanian has been a rock in goal, starting 29 times during the regular season and giving up just 1.14 goals a game on average. Only one keeper in the league had better numbers in that many starts.
He’s been even better in the playoffs, shutting out Real Salt Lake twice in a two-leg semifinal victory to send the Galaxy on to the conference finals with the Seattle Sounders. That series begins Nov. 23 at the StubHub Center.
Yet none of that happens without Galaxy assistant coach Matt Reis, who retired in 2013 after 11 stellar seasons in goal with the New England Revolution. Reis, in his first season as a coach, was given the job of chipping away at Penedo’s rough edges.
“A lot of goalkeepers from different parts of the world are not necessarily trained properly in their technique,” Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena, a former U.S. national team goalkeeper, said of Penedo. “He’s been given a lot of training this year on the technical side. He’s beginning to reap the benefits now.”
Key to that transition was the trust Penedo had in Reis, who the goalie says has become less of a coach and more of a friend.
“Every day when I get home I tell my wife that Matt corrects me at least 50 times a day, which I like because I have noticed a change,” Penedo explained in Spanish. “I tell Matt, ‘When you correct me, I listen. You correct me and your voice is the one I follow.’”
You couldn’t blame Penedo if he didn’t believe he needed correcting. Only one man has played in more games for Panama’s national team than the 33-year-old Penedo, who has 100 caps. He was twice named top keeper in the regional CONCACAF Gold Cup.
But he admits none of that had prepared him for the faster, physical style of play in MLS. So over the winter the Galaxy hired Reis, and it was something of coaching coup, bringing in a guy who ranks in the top six in MLS history in shutouts, starts, wins and saves.
Reis immediately went to work. First he changed Penedo’s erect stance, one that had him leaning back on his heels while awaiting a shot. Instead, Reis instructed Penedo to bend at the knees and lean forward, allowing him to react quicker and move faster from side to side.
“We’re just trying to add little things and give him little ideas that can make him better,” Reis said. “We can’t change everything he did. It’s just a matter of picking out a few things that can make him better.”
Penedo has arguably been at his best lately. In addition to his two playoff shutouts, he had eight clean sheets during the regular season. And over his last 11 games, he’s allowed a goal or less eight times.
Much of the credit for that, Penedo and Reis agree, goes to the Galaxy’s attacking, ball-control style of play. During the regular season the Galaxy took 543 shots — an average of 16 a game and 55 more than any other team. As a result, Penedo was asked to make far fewer stops than most other MLS keepers.
Add it up and no team in the league scored more goals (69) or gave up fewer (37) than the Galaxy. While that’s a goalie’s dream, it’s created other challenges.
“Mentally you have to be super strong. You have to be very focused,” said Penedo, who has worked on that with sports psychologist Ken Ravizza. “I try not to think. When you start thinking that’s when you get distracted. I try to stay warm, stay active.”
Sometimes, especially in opposing stadiums, he also listens to the fans.
“I hear them, but I don’t understand them,” Penedo, whose English is also a work in progress, said playfully. “I just pretend like they’re supporting me.”
That ability to shut out distractions apparently extends beyond the field too.
Penedo’s $135,000 contract with the Galaxy expires when the season does, which could leave him unemployed. Though the team says it would like to pick up Penedo’s option, the Galaxy has had a revolving door in front of its net recently, starting the year with four different regular keepers over the past four seasons.
“That would be ideal,” Penedo said of returning to the Galaxy. “But to be frank, what I want is to play for a championship. I want to enjoy this moment. I want to focus on this.”