Photo by Ira L. Black – Corbis/Getty Images

The American goalkeeper is taking the reins in MLS.

Success at the goalkeeper position can be difficult to predict, as players can struggle to adjust to the physical and mental sides of the game at each successive level. Some of the most talented prospects fail to find the right situation and spend their entire careers toiling at the backend of the depth chart. Drake Callender received his first real professional opportunity this season and is turning heads with strong performances. The 24-year-old seized control of the starting spot and could be working his way into the long-term picture for the national team.

Born in Sacramento, California, Callender played with Cap FC United and Placer United before joining the San Jose Earthquakes academy. He competed at the high school level, leading Bella Vista HS to a 20-0-2 record and the CIF San Joaquin sectional title, saving a penalty in the final. The multi-sport athlete also starred for the track team and set a freshman record in the long jump.

Callender matriculated to the University of California, Berkeley and began earning playing time his freshman year. In four seasons with the Golden Bears, he made 54 appearances, was included on the MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List, and was named to the All-Far West Region and All-Pac-12 teams multiple times. As a senior, the goalkeeper earned an invitation to train with the United States Under-23 Men’s National Team and was rated the top senior prospect by Everybody Soccer.

Prior to the 2020 season, expansion side Inter Miami CF acquired his Homegrown rights from the San Jose Earthquakes. “We’re excited to sign Drake to a contract,” said then-Sporting Director Paul McDonough. “He’s a driven, young goalkeeper who stood out at the collegiate level both on and off the pitch.”

After signing, Callender spent his first season as an unused back-up but began appearing on the bench toward the end of the COVID-shortened schedule. In 2021, he benefited from appearing with the reserve team and gained experience in 17 USL League One matches. The club’s patient development process and his determination would eventually pay off.

“You’re always ready at this level,” Callender said on Miami Total Futbol Radio. “Anything can happen. That is something, being a back-up, you don’t know when you may get the shot. You don’t know when your opportunity can come, but when your opportunity does come, you better make sure that you’re ready. And that’s kind of been a theme for me… just being prepared for the opportunity.”

This season, a thought-to-be-third-string Callender experienced a breakthrough, making his first-team debut in March, playing 90 minutes in a 3-1 loss to FC Cincinnati due to two injuries. The 24-year-old goalkeeper has since registered 15 total league and cup appearances, locking down the starting role. According to MLSSoccer.com, he is “the biggest reason that Miami is closer to the playoff line than the bottom of the standings” and “has been the best in the league when it comes to stopping shots,” leading in the “goals saved above expected metric.”

MLS named him to Team of the Week for Week 12 following a Man of the Match performance against the Philadelphia Union. Callender made eight saves, including six from “close range,” and earned a spot on the SportsCenter Top 10 plays. He repeated the feat in Week 13 with “four saves and a 96% pass rate.”

“It’s about showing up every single day,” shared Callender. “I know at this level there are going to be moments to show your skill, show the ability to make great saves, [and] get involved in the build-up. Really just build momentum and stick to the grind… I have treated every training session like it’s my last, really trying to help the team any way that I can… I’m willing to go a full 90 minutes plus extra time to get a result that will help the team.”

At the international level, Callender was named to the provisional roster for the 2020 CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship. He was then added to the training camp in Mexico ahead of the tournament, replacing Jonathan Klinsmann. Jason Kreis elected to leave him out of the final group, which fell in the semifinal to Honduras.

Possessing the necessary height of 6’2”, Callender “overachieves in saving shots that should be goals” and is mainly focused on defending his goalmouth, with one of the highest save percentages in MLS. He “makes saves look easy” and has the patience to avoid diving too soon. Stopping crosses is also an asset, although there is a tendency to delay challenging onrushing attackers to prevent over-pursuit and instead opting to wait to cut down an angle. Multiple observers have noted his propensity for catching the ball, describing him as having “a magnet in his gloves.”

“He looked composed,” Miami manager Phil Neville said after a recent victory. “He does things that modern day keepers don’t tend to do, such as catch the ball. A lot of keepers punch the ball. He never fumbles the ball. He looks so assured. I think he has the attributes to be a top keeper.”

With three spots available and fortunes constantly shifting at the club level, the USMNT’s goalkeeper depth chart is never truly settled. While Callender is playing well for Miami, the hour is a little late to work his way into the rotation during this World Cup cycle. If he continues gaining experience in MLS, then the sure-handed 24-year-old should be considered in the future with the potential to add some competition and upset the established order.