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Keylor Navas is the best goalie in the history of the Concacaf federation, and he still has years of soccer in his future.
The Costa Rican’s accomplishments stand completely singular against other Concacaf goalkeepers, even though his career hasn’t reached the longevity and consistency of some of his peers. As the No. 1 keeper for Real Madrid he has started and won three Champions League titles, something no other player in the federation has managed; he has also helped the squad to a La Liga title in 2016-17. He holds honors not just from Concacaf but from UEFA as well, earning a spot on “squad of the season” in 2017-18 as well as “best goalkeeper” the same year.
But with Navas, the “what” is only so important.
The skill in between the sticks is one thing, but to understand his stature in world soccer and in Concacaf you need to understand the context of his career and the constant pressured he has endured.
Birthplace: Perez Zeledon, Costa Rica
Years active: 2005-current
Teams: Deportivo Saprissa, Albacete Balompié, Levante, Real Madrid
Notable achievements: Champions League (three times), La Liga, Concacaf player of the year (2014, 2017), UEFA Champions League goalkeeper of the season, helped lead Costa Rica to the quarterfinals in the 2014 World Cup
Under scrutiny, under pressure, overlooked
Navas is a battler.
Arguably no goalkeeper on the planet in the last five years has been so underrated as the Costa Rican superstar. Look at any top-five goalie — heck, maybe top-10 — and you probably won't find him.
For years Real Madrid — his own club! — have maintained a pretty obvious eye on the market for a No. 1, with names like David de Gea grabbing the headlines. But through it all, Navas held down the spot. Eventually, of course, Real Madrid landed Thibaut Courtois, but in his first year the Belgian certainly did not oust Navas completely from the picture. Navas has fought tooth and nail for the La Liga giants, and I imagine he’s going to keep doing so.
Internationally, GOAT status for keepers isn’t an easy spot to claim within Concacaf, especially with USA heavyweight keepers like Tim Howard and Brad Friedel. Howard, of course, played several years with Manchester United before logging over 300 appearances for Everton. Friedel plied his trade in England from 1997 all the way through 2015, stopping at Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa, and Tottenham. Both men have earned over 500 professional caps; Navas hasn’t yet eclipsed 250.
Neither Friedel nor Howard, though, ever reached the club heights of Navas.
There's a ninja in the 6-yard box
Here is a marvelous display of what Navas can do.
If there were ever a person for whom the descriptor "cat-like reflexes" were actually appropriate, it'd be Keylor Navas. There really isn't a lot that Navas can't do well — if you could point to anything, it may be a lack of aerial presence as the Costa Rican stands only around 6-foot-1 — but what he probably does best is combine his agility and reflexes with a keen knowledge of when to come off his line.
Navas can slither through a crowded six-yard box to hunt down an attacker fumbling in possession. He knows exactly when to charge a striker breaking through on the counter attack. His ability to paw away crosses is uncanny. When you watch him closely, he actually does look like a cat frantically batting away shots, his entire body launching weightlessly into the air, limbs contorting, neck twisting to locate the ball.
Goalkeeper is a notoriously psychological position, and maybe what stands out most for Navas is his ability to endure both the underlying pressure at Real Madrid but also individual mistakes.
This gaffe against Juventus stands out as one of his worse moments. But Navas and Los Blancos managed to survive another day, getting bailed out by a penalty in the dying minutes, and the keeper stood strong in net the rest of the way en route to a third-straight Champions League. Plenty of keepers have seen their careers dwindle rapidly after a series of mistakes or poor performances; the mark of the best is a short memory, something easier said than done.
Costa Rica vs The World
Navas’ performance in the 2014 World Cup is perhaps the most remarkable achievement in his career.
Costa Rica landed in a group with perennial powers Italy, England, and Uruguay, yet Navas’ side topped one of the toughest groups in the field, not losing a single group game. In the round of 16, Costa Rica played Greece to a 1-1 draw and advanced after penalty kicks; Navas earned man of the match honors and saved a penalty to secure the win. Against the Netherlands, Costa Rica fought to a 0-0 draw and once again played to penalty kicks, this time not quite surviving the shootout.
Navas was arguably the best keeper in the entire tournament, although Manuel Neuer took home the Golden Glove.
For club and country, Navas has been stupendous. And the 32-year-old should still have a few years left of being a top keeper at a big club.
With Courtois now set to potentially miss the beginning of the season with an injury, Navas has an opportunity once again to prove why he’s one of the best and most underrated keepers in the world.
But whatever Navas’ future is with Los Blancos, wherever he moves or doesn’t move next, I am convinced he is the greatest goalie of all time from the Concacaf federation — even if he retired today. The longevity and consistency that Howard and Friedel achieved internationally and in the Premier League remains impressive, but Navas’ list of accolades is simply unmatched.