Portland Timbers goalkeeper embraces rising expectations
The 2022 MLS All-star Game happens Aug. 10. There won't be a Portland Timbers player involved. Perhaps there should be.
For, without Aljaz Ivacic coming up with a critical, and often eye-catching, stop or two in every game, it's fair to wonder if the Timbers would be making their annual reinvention as a playoff threat.
That's not to argue that All-Star keepers Andre Blake and Sean Johnson aren't deserving All-Stars. They are. Ivacic and the Timbers experienced too many rocky moments over the first half of the season to make the Slovenian a serious candidate for All-Star status.
But, in his first season as the Timbers' first-choice goalkeeper, Ivacic has emerged as one of the club's most impactful performers.
That was certainly the case in the July 23 win over San Jose. Ivacic matched a season high with six saves, three of them high difficulty — an effort recognized when he was named to the MLS Team of the Week for a second time this season.
Statistically, Ivacic's numbers (impacted by a few rough outings early in the year) don't jump off the page. But, they are solid. For example, his 71.4% save percentage entering a Saturday, July 30, visit to Minnesota is the eighth best in Major League Soccer.
A closer look reveals an encouraging trend. Ivacic ranks among the top keepers in the league in outperforming expected goals against. Before the July 30 4-4 draw at Minnesota — in which he made two saves — in six consecutive matches he had allowed fewer goals than the stats say he should have based upon the quality of opposing scoring chances.
"There's details that can be better. But, overall, I think he's been very, very good," Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said. "He's proven to everyone that he can be our starting goalkeeper."
When Ivacic made the move to the Portland Timbers in January 2019 from NK Olimpija Ljubljana in his native Slovenia, he didn't envision waiting three years behind Steve Clark and Jeff Attinella to make the club's goalkeeping job his own.
"Obviously, I didn't come from Europe to the U.S. to be on the bench," Ivacic said. "And I wasn't the happiest person, obviously. But that's the way it is. We need to accept that and work. I was quiet. I worked hard, and now it's paying off."
The 28-year-old Ivacic has wowed fans and teammates with stops such as his fingertip play to deny San Jose's Cristian Espinoza a tying goal. But his recent success is at least seven years in the making.
As a kid, Ivacic played midfield for his teams. His first experience in goal came at age 12 because his team needed a keeper for a game.
"I had a very good game. That's why they decided to put me in the goal from then on." Ivacic recalled. "I didn't want to be a goalie, but they put me in that role because I was one of the worst field players."
As a teen, he briefly considered turning his focus to basketball — a sport he loves — but his parents told him to stick with goalkeeping.
"I was very stubborn and I'm still stubborn. I wanted to play basketball. So, thanks to them, they put me on the right path."
Ivacic became a pro at 18. He said his progression took a big step when he was 21 and began to be coached by Dino Seremet, a Slovenian keeper who spent 12 years playing professionally in England's second and third divisions and in Greece.
"He taught me everything, not only goalkeeping, also the way you should think if you want to succeed," Ivacic said. "So, when I was 21, I really actually started to understand goalkeeping, the right way of thinking. Before that I was young, reckless."
Timbers goalkeeping coach Gulliermo "Memo" Valencia said where he's seen Ivacic most improve during his time in Portland is reading the game.
"He's been improving on his decisions. He's coming out off the line. His communication is a big key," Valencia said.
Valencia said Ivacic's communication and command of the box are areas he's grown significantly, but can still improve.
"He's a guy that is really, really calm. Sometimes being calm is good, but sometimes you need a little bit of urgency," Valencia said. "If he communicates earlier to a defender, maybe he's not going to have to make a save."
It is such details that Ivacic focuses on after each match. He doesn't only watch a loop of memorable saves.
"I'm watching the bad things that I did in the game, so I can become better," he said. "Because the good things, they're there. So, no need to watch them."
Where does Ivacic want to improve?
"I think I need to be better with my feet. I'm really hard on myself. I want to be perfect. And I think I need to be better within my distribution and (catching) crosses."
Ivacic appreciates Valencia's work ethic and the way the Timbers' goalkeeping coach pushes him with extra work after a training session.
Ivacic and his wife, Rebekah — they married in January — grew up in Domzale, a suburb of about 20,000 people outside Slovenia's capital city Ljubljana. In Portland, he describes life as simple. After a morning training session, he often chills at home, focused on preparing for the next training opportunity.
When he's not thinking about soccer, Ivacic often plays chess online. He started playing a couple of years ago and studies the play of LA Galaxy forward Dejan Joveljic — whom Ivacic calls "the best active soccer player in chess. He's like a master."
Ivacic said there are similarities between playing goalkeeper and the game of chess, noting that both require intense focus.
"When you make a mistake, it's over. A field player, if they make a mistake, I'm behind them. Behind me is no one. So, if you make a mistake, you're done. It's the same in chess."
In calculating his career progress, Ivacic understands this is a big season, one he isn't taking for granted after working through three frustrating years.
"There were many moments that I wanted to just to pack my stuff and leave. I was on the edge," he said. He credits the support of friends, family and teammates for helping him stay the course when he viewed his path to playing time was blocked.
Age 28 is when field players are in their prime, most goalkeeping careers follow a different arc. Ivacic can expect to play for a decade or more. He would love to play at the sport's highest level, like his idol Samir Handanovic, the 38-year-old Slovenian keeper in his 11th season starting for Inter Milan.
Sure, describing Ivacic as an All-Star level keeper is a stretch in 2022. But, it's a level that sure appears within reach.
"After that (San Jose) game, I'm not going to stop. I want to be even better this weekend. And the next weekend, I want to be better," Ivacic said. "Because I want to prove everyone wrong. I was judged on a low-budget keeper, that I'm a backup keeper, before this season. But now I'm making everyone silent, and I want to keep doing that."
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