By Ridge Mahoney
Eighteen months before the 2014 World Cup there’s little if any chance that, barring injury -- assuming the USA qualifies -- Tim Howard won’t be in goal.
Howard's clearcut status is an exception. There’s ample uncertainty and nebulousness in several other spots as U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann prepares for a frantically busy 2013. More than 20 games are likely when the Hexagonal qualifiers, Gold Cup and friendlies – starting with Jan. 29 against Canada – are added up.
Soccer America U.S. Positional Rankings are presented a depth chart by position. These rankings reflect where the incumbents and candidates stand, based on current form, past experience and other factors, such as the squad’s relative solidity -- or lack of same -- at each position. Players are ranked at one position, though some are contenders at multiple positions. The U.S. Positional Rankings will be periodically updated during the Hexagonal, incorporating fluctuations in club form as well as showings, if any, for the USA, as well as U.S. youth teams, if applicable.
In goal, which has traditionally been the strongest USA position over the last two decades, there’s unlikely to be shakeup at the top, unless a serious, long-term injury sidelines the current No. 1.
SA's Top 6 U.S. Goalies
1. Tim Howard (Everton) 84 caps.
2. Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), 20 caps.
3. Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), 6 caps.
4. Tally Hall (Houston), 0 caps.
5. Bill Hamid (D.C. United), 1 caps.
6. Sean Johnson (Chicago), 2 caps.
Howard didn’t concede any shaky goals at the 2010 World Cup yet he also didn’t produce any brilliant saves, as did Brad Friedel at the 2002 competition in which the Americans reached the quarterfinals. (They were undone, ironically, by a goal line "save" by Germany’s Torsten Frings.)
Yet Howard has been excellent on several other occasions, most notably the 2009 Confederations Cup -- in which he and Americans ended Spain’s 35-game unbeaten run with a 2-0 victory -- and the 2007 Gold Cup. He signed a four-year deal with Everton last February, is approaching his 300th Premier League appearance and doesn’t seem to be in any danger of being deposed for club and country. That absence of competition could be detriment, yet Howard’s concentration and work habits are rarely subpar.
Howard will be 35 at Brazil 2014 yet there’s little reason to believe he won’t be the Americans’ best option in goal. By then, however, his closest pursuer may well have tightened the gap.
Guzan needed a few years to get a real shot with Aston Villa, which he joined in 2008 after several stellar seasons for Chivas USA. Last summer, the club released him yet soon thereafter signed him to a new contract, and despite conceding 15 goals in three games during the busy holiday period, including an 8-0 thrashing by Chelsea in which he saved a penalty kick, Guzan has kept the No. 1 shirt.
But Villa has conceded more goals (41) than any other Premier League team and is in 16th place, just one point clear of the relegation zone. Guzan has given up 37 of those goals in his 19 starts and at age 28, can’t afford a dropdown to a lower division or losing the starting spot he waited so long to get. Longtime Irish international Shay Given is the Villa alternative.
Rimando, 33, is consistently ranked among MLS’s top keepers, is a popular presence with his good humor and zealous training habits and has no trouble leaving or joining the U.S. squad on short notice. He’s out of the January camp as he recovers from a bothersome shoulder injury but is a near-certainty to be summoned during the Hexagonal.
Hall, 27, has no caps and aside from a trip to Japan with the U.S. U-23 team in 2007 hasn’t been involved with the national team programs. Since taking over the Dynamo net from Pat Onstad, he’s been the starter and backstopped Houston to back-to-back MLS Cup appearances. He does have international club experience for the Dynamo in Concacaf Champions League play, and a bit more range than the two youngsters often called in by Klinsmann.
A rough experience playing for the U-23s last spring in Concacaf Olympic qualifying led to Hamid briefly losing his starting job at D.C., but he regained the spot and finished the season with 60 league appearances dating back to his first MLS start in 2010.
Unfortunately, Hamid's bobble of a cross resulted in an ugly own goal in a 1-1 playoff tie with New York and he didn’t look especially secure in the conference finals against Houston, but at age 22 he’s still learning. He got his first cap against Venezuela a year ago after making the game-day roster as Howard’s backup several times in 2011. He turns 23 in May, which makes him about six months older than Johnson.
Johnson replaced Hamid at halftime in the final Concacaf group qualifier against Guatemala and reacted too slowly to prevent the stoppage-time equalizer in a 3-3 tie that eliminated the Americans. Like Hamid, he’s been an MLS starter since 2010 (72 appearances) and got his first cap in a January friendly, the 2011 game against Chile.
The duel between Hall, Hamid, and Johnson is more than a claim to Rimando’s status as No. 3. If Klinsmann passes on both Howard and Guzan for the Gold Cup, the MLS contingent (which could also include Dan Kennedy, Jon Busch and Luis Robles) will be front and center.