Veteran 'keeper Sutton battles for starting spot

"Bouna Time" could be coming to a close at Red Bull Arena

Canada national team goalkeeper Greg Sutton.

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HARRISON, N.J. – There were times last year when Red Bulls goalkeeper Greg Sutton could have mailed it in.

After all, the Canadian international and league veteran was a rarely used commodity, relegated to playing in friendly matches and making four starts in the US Open Cup.

Sutton came to New York last year on the recommendation of then-goalkeeper coach Des McAleenan to provide depth. He knew all along that Bouna Coundoul was the incumbent at the position, but despite his backup status and the fact his number of MLS starts in 2010 could be counted on one hand, Sutton came to practice every day and worked hard.

It was against everything in Sutton’s character to slack off. “Sutts” was the first one on the field and often the last to leave.

And now it might be paying off as Sutton and Coundoul – who missed the first part of preseason training while away with the Senegalese national team – are locked in a battle for the No. 1 spot.

“I always wanted to try and play on a regular basis,” Sutton told MLSsoccer.com. “Last year, we were putting up a lot of wins and there was no real slide or dip in Bouna’s form, so there wasn’t a lot of minutes for me. Now there’s a new chance."

"I believe I’ve shown what I’m capable of and what I can do," he added. "I know the coaching staff has confidence in me, I just need to continue to work hard for the chance.”

The fact remains that last year was arguably the best of Coundoul’s career as statistically he was among the top five goalkeepers in the league. But Sutton made the most of the No. 1’s lost time this year and did well in preseason training, perhaps even earning himself an edge in the goalkeeper battle.

Sutton said he doesn’t know if he will start on Saturday when New York open their season at Red Bull Arena against the Seattle Sounders, but his preparation won’t change at all either way.

Does that mean the clock could strike midnight on “Bouna Time”? Head coach Hans Backe told MLSsoccer.com that he has not yet made a decision on who will start the season opener and that any decision on the starting XI will come later this week.

“It’s good for the team when you have a goalkeeper competition,” assistant coach Jan Halvor Halverson said. “It raises everyone’s level, not just theirs. They are two good goalkeepers and they’re both playing well right now. It’s been a good battle.”

As a league veteran, Sutton knows that even if he isn’t a starter, anything can happen – from an injury, to a national team call-up, to a dip in a form – and he must be ready to step in and play.

But one challenge for Sutton, Coundoul and rookie Alex Horwath is that they are training without a goalkeeper coach, following a staff shakeup two weeks ago that saw McAleenan dismissed from the team.

“It is a bit of a challenge, but I think between the three of us and our own experiences, we can do our own drills and make for a good training session,” Sutton said. “We all have certain things we like to do to get ready, and things we need to do. So between us, we can certainly do that. It’s just something different to juggle.”

“I’ve never been the kind of person to not compete, to not give my best,” Sutton added. “I believe I’ve shown what I’m capable of. I’m confident in my abilities.”

Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer

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