HARRISON, N.J. – The goalkeeper battle is on.
For the first time since he joined the club last year, Greg Sutton was the Red Bulls starter in a match where Senegalese international Bouna Coundoul was available for selection. Sutton's seven saves on Saturday night figured heavily in the final 1-0 shutout of the Seattle Sounders on opening night at Red Bulls Arena.
Although NYRB manager Hans Backe did not hide his displeasure in public statements about Coundoul's departing preseason to join Senegal on a FIFA date in January, Backe said Sutton earned his start on Saturday.
“I felt that after this preseason, Greg deserved it,” Backe said.
And Sutton did nothing on Saturday night to let Coundoul wrest away control of the starting nod.
When called upon, the lanky Canadian was stout. In the 39th minute, Seattle’s Fredy Montero right footed a point blank shot from six yards away that Sutton batted away with his left hand, a save reminiscent of a hockey goalkeeper. Then in stoppage time of the second half, Sutton stood tall again, making his seventh and final save on a swerving Montero free kick.
“When Montero hits the ball, he has that kind of shot, he hits it with his shoe laces,” Sutton said. “It moves on you.”
“He had some key saves in the first half," Backe said. "With a tricky guy like Montero, he’s definitely a player who can make a difference. I think he saved two or three from Montero. Yeah, he had a great game today.”
Sutton found out last Friday that he would be the starter but he doesn’t know how long that title will last. According to the keeper, Backe made no promises about starting down the road but the Canadian will surely start next Saturday in Columbus with Coundoul once again called away to Senegal’s national team.
It's been a long road to the starting lineup for Sutton. Even last year when playing time was limited to spot duty when Coundoul was away, he continued to work hard in training and log extra time after practice to stay sharp. It's paid off with two consecutive starts to kick off 2011.
“I like to think part of the reason is my competitiveness,” Sutton said. “I think tonight, I did what I had to do.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer