Kerith Gabriel: Knighton earns his job in Union net

Brad Knighton played his way from being a backup goalkeeper to a starter for Union.
Brad Knighton played his way from being a backup goalkeeper to a starter for Union.
Posted: October 15, 2010

BRAD KNIGHTON always knew these days would come.

He wasn't sure of the manner, for which team, or in which city, but he always knew he'd be called upon as the last line of defense for a Major League Soccer franchise.

Going undrafted, Knighton was discovered during an open tryout for the New England Revolution in February 2007. His resume was already impressive. In his senior year at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, Knighton set the single-season goals-against average record (0.83) while posting six shutouts, a program mark that still remains intact.

But let's rewind. Back before the recordsetting season at UNC-Wilmington and the tryout that led to an MLS contract as the third-string keeper for the Revolution. Up until age 13, he juggled soccer and baseball, in which he excelled as a catcher. In soccer, he was a forward, until an unexpected occurrence led to Knighton's eventual career choice.

"I had been playing soccer since I was 5, but I always played as a forward for my club teams," Knighton said. "I was playing in a game one day and our goalkeeper got hurt. My coach asked if I wanted to give it a try. I played catcher in baseball, so I figured I'd try it out. One half led to a game, which led to a season, which led me to where I am today."

As a member of the Revolution, Knighton felt frustration every day. A 20-year-old kid with talent but little experience, Knighton was relegated to the bench while Revs boss Steve Nicol appointed him as the understudy to the understudy to Revs starter Matt Reis. A determined Knighton earned a second-string role behind Reis, eventually starting six games in the 2009 season.

"Yeah, man, those were frustrating times," Knighton recalled. "You feel you can contribute to your team and with the amount of work you put in during practice over the course of the week, it's frustrating to know you are doing all that to bide your time on the bench."

So it was refreshing to receive a call before last November's MLS expansion draft from Peter Nowak. The Union manager told Knighton his unprotected status with New England gave him a chance to be one of the first members of the new franchise - though as a backup. Knighton knew, even before signing his Union contract, that he'd back up Chris Seitz. Seitz, a backup himself to Nick Rimando at MLS champion Real Salt Lake, came heavily favored, forcing Knighton to prove his worth yet again.

"I knew coming into this situation that they were bringing Chris in as the starter, but I wanted to come here. I wanted to be in Philadelphia," Knighton said. "It was a young, technical staff on a young team, and I knew this was a good opportunity to further my career."

As the season progressed and Seitz' GAA rose, Knighton was finally called upon for his first start for the Union against FC Dallas. It was the chance he yearned for all season. Only 22 minutes into the match, Knighton came out hard and took out the legs of Dallas forward Brek Shea, earning an ejection.

"I felt like I let the team down, man. It was devastating," Knighton said. "It's one of those moments you can't allow yourself to dwell on, but these guys put everything into me and that one lapse cost us the game. But I was determined to get out there and prove myself."

After a dismal showing by Seitz against Kansas City, the first time Nowak had some choice words to say about his starter, Knighton was back in goal again a week later against Chicago. In dramatic fashion, the keeper earned his and the team's first-ever shutout.

This weekend will mark Knighton's seventh start (1.12 GAA, two shutouts) for a club looking to close out the year on a high note against the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, Red Bull New York and the Columbus Crew.

His relationship with Seitz is strong, he said, even though the 24-year-old has taken Seitz' starting role twice this season.

"Even with me playing now, there is no animosity between us," Knighton said. "We go to dinners together, hang out; we are even in the same fantasy football league. Obviously, we both want to be playing, but we are both pushing each other, and Chris has been really beneficial in helping me get to where I am now."

Knighton added: "Any time you get a chance to play in a game, it's a blessing. And when you train as hard as we do, you want to put what you learned in practice into use. I knew I'd always get in, I just had to wait a little longer than the others."

ODDS AND ENDLINES

A Union win tomorrow over New York will ensure that the Red Bulls will have to wait a little while longer to secure the Eastern Conference regular-season title. A loss gives RBNY claim to the title, with 51 total points, five better than second place Columbus . . . The Union plans to show its appreciation to fans, who have bought roughly 430,000 tickets during the inaugural season, according to Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz. A source close to the team said the occasion will include manager Peter Nowak thanking the crowd. There was no word on whether it will be before or after the game . . . What was thought to be a scuffle in Section 129 during Tuesday night's U.S.-Colombia game at PPL Park was later determined to be an unruly fan throwing a beer bottle in the direction of U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu. The fan was escorted from the section; there was no word on whether charges were filed.

SHOTS ON GOAL

Upcoming game:

Red Bull New York (14-8-6, 48 points) at Union (7-14-7, 28 points)

When: Tomorrow, 6 o'clock

Where: PPL Park, Chester

TV: Fox Soccer Channel

On the web: Streaming video at MLSSoccer.com

For kicks: The second of three games against the class of the league awaits the Union when it hosts Eastern Conference leader Red Bull New York. This one features two players up for MLS Rookie of the Year honors, Union forward Danny Mwanga and Red Bull defender Tim Ream . . . Red Bull goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul (1.04 goals-against average) is a force in net, boasting 10 shutouts, his latest in a 0-0 tie with MLS defending champion Real Salt Lake . . . New York is looking for a sweep of Philly after a 2-1 win in league play on April 24, followed by a 2-0 Open Cup victory 4 days later, both at Red Bull Arena.

INJURY REPORT (as of Tuesday)

UNION: Probable: Fred, MF (head laceration); Juan Diego Gonzalez, DF (left groin strain); Danny Mwanga, FW (left shoulder sprain); Brad Knighton, GK (left shoulder sprain)

RED BULL NEW YORK: Out: Luke Sassano, MF (right ankle surgery); Brian Nielsen, MF (right knee strain); Irving Garcia, MF (hernia surgery); Carey Talley, DF (left hamstring strain). Questionable: Mike Petke, DF (right calf strain)

HE SAID IT: "The international game is a bit slower than what I'm used to in England. It wasn't hard to adapt to. I had no nerves. There was hardly anyone here [in the stands] compared to what I'm used to in England. As far as individual performance, it doesn't matter if you don't win." - U.S. defender Eric Lichaj, following Tuesday's friendly against Colombia at PPL Park

TRIVIA TIME

Who has the most coaching wins with professional soccer teams in the United States?

A. Lamar Hunt

B. Bruce Arena

C. Ron Newman

D. Steve Sampson

By Jamie Clary, author of the First American Soccer Trivia Book, available at: www.soccerprofessor.com. Send search engine-free answer to: gabrielk@phillynews.com. Answer will appear in upcoming Union Meeting.

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