There are two distinctly different ways of looking at Andre Blake’s career and its present outlook.
You can either see the Philadelphia Union and Jamaica goalkeeper as a late bloomer or a young star. He is 26, which makes him middle-aged for a professional soccer player. And he’s only been a starter for one season. At the same time, it’s only been three years since he became a professional, and he’s young for a starting goalie on the verge of stardom.
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Blake didn’t get to Major League Soccer until he was 23. But now, after just one full year as the Union’s starter, he is the best goalkeeper in the league. This is a matter of broad consensus, not just opinion. Blake was the 2016 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and, naturally, a member of the league’s Best XI squad.
In 2016, on a team that squeaked into the playoffs on goal difference in spite of a losing record, Blake quietly established himself as perhaps the best young shot-stopper to come out of North America since Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas. But even by North American standards, where soccer careers have a habit of taking circuitous routes while winding through the Byzantine layers and unpaved roads of a shoddy development structure, Blake took the long way to the top. But then that’s not so unexpected when you know his story.
“My entire life’s been like that, where I go through a tough year with injuries or not getting playing time for whatever reason,” he says. “And then I’ll get back and, as soon as I get a chance, take off. And then a few years later, I’ll find myself in another situation where maybe the coach doesn’t favor me. It’s always been like this, forever.”
While he talks, Blake’s 3-year-old son Jaheim plays in the background. Blake was married to Shauna-Kay by the time he was drafted first overall out of the University of Connecticut in 2014. He’s old like that. Yet he’s young for a guy who already has 23 caps for Jamaica and started for his country in a major tournament, the 2016 Copa America Centenario. He’s also young for a goalkeeper who has caught the attention of scouts in Europe, making it feel like an inevitability that he will hop the pond to a major club.
“I think he can play in the EPL,” says Ray Reid, his college coach. “I don’t think he’s very far at all, to be honest with you.”
If he’s not far now, that belies the long way Blake has already come.
Blake was the fifth of six boys born to a father driving a cab and a mother working in a grocery store in May Pen in central Jamaica, 45 minutes west of Kingston. “It was tough growing up,” he recalls. “Financially, we didn’t have much. We weren’t hungry, but after that, we didn’t have much. Couldn’t go out to the movies or get all these clothes and shoes.”
He liked having so many brothers. “It was good in the sense that we could always go to the soccer field and kick around when I was smaller,” Blake says, in his quiet, slow and polite patter, punctuated by the occasional chuckle. “I was always playing with the bigger boys.”
He hit his growth spurt late, eventually shooting up to 6-foot-2. But they put him in goal as a kid anyway, such was his natural gift for stopping shots.
On his youth teams, Blake would alternate between playing striker and goalkeeper. He’d score some goals, then move into the net to help his team preserve the lead he himself had created. It wasn’t until he was on Jamaica’s under-20 national team that he became a full-time keeper.
Blake was a promising cricket player, too, as a wicketkeeper, the cricketing equivalent of a catcher. He captained his school team, which is a big deal, and he may have had a future in the sport. He figures he could have perhaps played in Jamaica’s highest league, but probably wouldn’t have made the national cricket team, meaning there likely wasn’t any real money in it.
“I know I was pretty good in cricket but I knew I was better at soccer, and if I ever had an opportunity to play one pro, it was more soccer than cricket,” he says.
Even as a teenager, Blake needed to be pragmatic about the sport he picked. “I thought soccer was a way out for me,” he says. “And I knew if I was able to make it pro, I would definitely make a better life for myself and my family. So that was my biggest motivation to get out there and make something out of soccer where I was able to go back and take care of my family.”
He had no interest in playing professionally in Jamaica’s ill-funded domestic league. He hoped to sign abroad out of high school, but no offers came. He didn’t so much as get offered a trial.
“When you’re in Jamaica, not a lot of scouts come down to watch you play,” Blake says. “So it’s kind of tough for you to get out.”
He waited around for almost a year before finally accepting that he might have to swing through the college game in order to reach MLS and use it as a launchpad. So he stopped turning down scholarship offers and committed to UConn.
Blake was almost 21 when he arrived in Storrs. “He’s a great kid,” Reid remembers. “A quiet kid, but a good leader. He worked hard in training every day. He’s a mature kid. He’s highly driven.”
After three years at UConn, Blake was an All-American and the first goalkeeper ever selected No. 1 overall in the MLS draft, to his own surprise. The Union even traded up to take him.
But when he got to Philadelphia, Blake was stuck in the pecking order behind Zac MacMath, who was actually eight months younger than the Jamaican. That summer, however, Blake dazzled in a friendly against Premier League team Crystal Palace. Head coach Jim Curtin then called him into his office. Blake thought he was about to be told he was becoming the new starter. Instead, Curtin announced that the club had signed Algerian World Cup veteran Rais M’Bolhi to play in goal.
The top pick in the draft played in just one competitive game during his rookie year.
“It was hard to swallow,” Blake recalls. “I had to say to myself, ‘Don’t get bitter, get better. Keep working.’ ”
Painfully, before the 2015 season began, Blake tore his meniscus in the first game of preseason, ruling him out for six weeks. He came back and after a month of practice tore the meniscus in his right knee.
Looking back on that period, Blake considers it pivotal in the success he is now having.
“I’ve been through a lot of tough times with injuries and all of that,” he says. “In those times, I was growing mentally and getting prepared for when it’s time to play. A goalkeeper has to be mentally strong. That definitely helped me. I learned to be patient.”
Yet more patience would be required. In a miserable 2015 campaign, M’Bohli was the starting goalkeeper until April and MacMath was shipped to the Colorado Rapids in January. But then John McCarthy took the job. But he summarily lost it to Brian Sylvestre, only to win it back after three months. In September, Blake seized the starting position at last, cementing his worthiness in one particularly jaw-dropping sequence of saves to preserve a point in a tie with the New England Revolution.
M’Bohli was released at the end of the season and Blake was finally the undisputed starter going into 2016.
“He had a couple of hard decisions that went against him,” Curtin says of Blake. “He patiently awaited his turn. I think going through those moments as a young player made him stronger mentality-wise. And mentality is everything for a goalkeeper. When we finally gave him the keys, he grabbed a hold of them.”
Like any young goalkeeper, Blake needs polishing. “My entire game needs to get better,” he says. “My shot-stopping, my crosses, my reading of the game, my distribution. I want to get better at everything, every day.” It’s sort of funny that he should mention his shot-stopping because that’s where he stands out with his almost preternatural reflexes, which are quite stunning to watch.
Blake credits all the challenges for his growth. “My downtime is when I’m getting prepared for something bigger,” he says. “It’s preparing me mentally, physically, emotionally for something greater to come.”
So what is greater? What is to come?
“His athleticism and his ability to make the highlight-reel save speaks for itself,” Curtin says. “I don’t think you’ve seen the best of Andre. I think he has room to grow, room to improve. I think he’s going to continue to get better and better, which is crazy for a guy who is a Best XI goalkeeper.”
Blake makes no secret of his ambition to play in Europe at some point. “Ever since I was young, that was always my dream and aspiration,” he says. “I strongly believe there’s still more to come. I’m still a young goalkeeper and I believe there’s more that I can do.”
As his father says all of this, Jaheim is still chattering away. One of these years, he’ll be playing somewhere else. And so will his dad.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.