Bald eagles: They save everything but their hair

Editor’s note: David Lindholm is filling in this week for his father, Karl, who is on a brief sabbatical, returning soon. David, a 2005 graduate of Middlebury College, is, at present, in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts in Sports Management. He worked for seven years in Major League Soccer, most recently as director of media relations for the Colorado Rapids. He played goalie on the Panther soccer team; his father notes that David wasn’t bald then.
Since the summer of 1994, when the United States hosted the World Cup, the U.S. men’s national team has made incredible strides — a record of 178 wins, 97 losses, and 69 ties, and impressive performances at important tournaments.
The traditional powers of world soccer surely know that it’s only a matter of time before the U.S. overtakes them, though they may not know what has fueled the steady American rise.
The answer? Bald goalkeepers.
Yes, glabrous goalkeepers have accounted for 317 of the last 389 U.S. netminder appearances — a span covering more than 20 years, in which the man between the posts was either aggressively balding or completely bald 82 percent of the time.
(To avoid splitting hairs, we’re categorizing goalkeepers as either bald or not bald. It can be harsh for those in the balding process, but the basic rule is that if you see a goalkeeper and think to yourself, “I hope he knows he’s going bald, because the rest of us do,” then he is considered bald.)
The Hairless Era began on July 5, 1994, the day after the U.S. — backstopped by Tony Meola and his ponytail — bowed out of the 1994 World Cup.
Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller took the U.S. goalkeeping reins next, and while neither ever ceded an advantage to the other in the fight for the starting job, both lost very public battles with baldness. Tim Howard made his U.S. debut in 2002 and soon after opted for a Mr. Clean look. Brad Guzan followed, and while he and Howard battle for the top spot even today, they remain tied in their lack of hair.
In the Hairless Era, bald American goalkeepers have completely blocked their more follicularly fulsome counterparts — the more important the game, the more likely you are to find a Cue Ball in net.
The phenomenon defies easy explanation. Sure, goalkeepers have longer careers than field players, and thus more of an opportunity to develop a receding hairline, but bald keepers aren’t found in these numbers in the rest of the world.
It can’t be coincidence either: while roughly one quarter of American men begin to lose their hair by age 30, that rate that is far below that of U.S. national team goalkeepers. Plus, no research to date explains the gusto with which they have embraced the look.
No, the reasons behind this phenomenon continue to evade detection, and the goalkeepers themselves barely have any idea.
“I don’t know and it’s tough to say,” Howard told fans. “I like to keep it clean and easy. That works for me.”
“I look worse with hair,” Friedel has said, shrugging off jokes about his look. “I chose not to get the implants, I chose not to get the plugs. I like myself bald.”
Extreme stress has been known to cause hair loss, and goalkeepers, with the mental aspect of the game at the forefront of their job, could be at risk.
“I don’t know if that has anything to do with it,” says Matt Reis, who played twice for the U.S. in the midst of a long, successful, and hairless pro career. He saw the decision to shave the “hair island” on the front of his head and go fully bald as “more practical. I haven’t had a bad hair day in 12 years or so.”
We understand the impulse to accelerate the process — to go from patchy “balding” to streamlined “completely bald” as quickly as possible — but the roots of the issue still need to be addressed. What causes this intersection between balding and backstopping?
“I think you’re already predisposed,” says Reis. “If you’re of a like mind — and share a like recessive gene — then you’re going to become a goalkeeper.”
Some young goalkeepers even felt the immense pressure to emulate heroes like Friedel and Keller.
“It made things tough on me growing up,” says Clint Irwin, the hirsute goalkeeper for the Colorado Rapids. “If I wanted to accomplish my goals, it seemed like achieving baldness was paramount. At the age of 16, that’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Reis noticed an immediate difference. “I shaved my head, and doors started opening up for me,” he says. Though he says he can’t confirm that’s the reason he became the starter for the New England Revolution, he also “can’t deny it.”
But now, four years into U.S. national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s regime, there are worrying signs that the Hairless Era may be drawing to a close. The current boss has used non-bald goalkeepers a stunning 27 percent of the time, way ahead of his predecessors Bruce Arena (19 percent), Steve Sampson (14 percent), and Bob Bradley (11 percent).
Klinsmann appears not to recognize the pattern of baldness that has led to America’s emergence on the international stage, and the consequences could be disastrous. After all, the Hairless Era has boosted the Americans’ international profile and lifted the sport to new heights in this country.
Unceremoniously dropping the curtain on that era could spell the end of a surge of U.S. soccer success, and send it spiraling down the drain, like so many loose strands of you-know-what in the shower.
A longer version of this piece appeared in Issue 9 of Howler: A Magazine About Soccer, available at www.HowlerMagazine.com.

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