Interview by Mike Woitalla
The standard for how the USA performs at this summer’s World Cup remains the 2002 World Cup, when the Bruce Arena-coached Americans reached quarterfinals. In goal for the USA was Brad Friedel, whose highlights included two penalty-kick saves. Friedel was also on the 1994 and 1998 World Cup squads.
After a national championship with UCLA, Friedel's pro career has spanned Denmark, Turkey, MLS and England, where he set the record for most English Premier League starts.
The Tottenham Hotspur keeper came home this summer before what will be his 21st year of pro soccer. We caught up with him in Northern California where Friedel held training sessions for goalkeepers and coaches of El Cerrito FC, with which Tottenham has forged a partnership.
SOCCER AMERICA: What do you expect from the USA at this World Cup?
BRAD FRIEDEL. I expect the U.S. to be very competitive in all three games. I would not consider not getting to the second round a failure because of the teams they’re playing against and this being a very difficult group.
Ghana is going to be every bit as difficult as Portugal and Germany, for different reasons.
I do expect if they don’t qualify for the second round -- to at least have been on the verge of going through.
SOCCER AMERICA: What’s the key to success?
BRAD FRIEDEL: We did something very special in 2002 by beating Portugal (3-2) in the first game. It was imperative that we got off to the start that we did. And I do think getting off to good start against Ghana, whether that be a draw or a win, is imperative to build on the confidence.
SOCCER AMERICA: In 2002, the draw was also considered a “group of death” for the USA, because it included pre-tournament favorite Portugal (with Luis Figo), host South Korea (no host up till then had failed to reach the second round), and Poland, which was undefeated in qualifying …
BRAD FRIEDEL: I think we should look forward to it, embrace it, and go as underdog. It’s easier to play as the underdog.
I’ve always seen in my career when you play against the bigger teams, it’s not daunting, it’s not nerve-racking. It’s exciting. It’s a chance to put yourself on the world path. If you get a result against Germany, if you get a result against the world’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, that’s world class.
When the draw was made and up till today, do I think it’s a foregone conclusion that we won’t make it? Absolutely not. We’ve got a chance. The old cliche, take it game-by-game.
SOCCER AMERICA: What was your reaction to Jurgen Klinsmann cutting Landon Donovan [your 2002 World Cup teammate]?
BRAD FRIEDEL: I was surprised. Really surprised. I think he is definitely one of the best 23 players in the United States. I think that when you get to big tournament events, whether he would have been a starter or not, I think you need experienced players.
In my experience with Landon, he’s not a player who would be a bad influence off the field. So it’s one of those big decisions that could work really well for Jurgen or could backfire in a bad way for Jurgen.
Being surprised is the best way to describe it.
SOCCER AMERICA: Klinsmann picked as a third goalkeeper, behind Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, the 34-year-old Nick Rimando. Wouldn’t this be a good opportunity to give a young keeper a World Cup experience?
BRAD FRIEDEL: I don’t think on the third goalkeeper there’s a right or wrong way to choose it.
SOCCER AMERICA: What will you be doing during the World Cup?
BRAD FRIEDEL: I’ll do co-commentary for the BBC for six games, then I’ll go back to England and to work in Dublin with RTE for five of the games.
SOCCER AMERICA: Who do you favor at the World Cup?
BRAD FRIEDEL: Can someone beat Brazil in Brazil? That is a difficult thing to do. They also have a special squad. It’s not going out on a limb to say Brazil will win. It will take an awful good team or an awful bad performance by a referee to beat Brazil in Brazil.
SOCCER AMERICA: Otherwise?
BRAD FRIEDEL: Because of the conditions and the elements, I do think a ball-possession team will win it.
I think it’s going to be a very difficult tournament for defensive teams that are always chasing.
I think the travel, the heat, the humidity over a six-game period to the final is a factor. So I think South American teams are going to do very well.
SOCCER AMERICA: Besides the usual favorites from Europe, which do you find intriguing?
BRAD FRIEDEL: I’m really interested to see how Belgium does. And Switzerland is a very strong team that not many people are talking about.
Belgium is two deep in every position. It might be one tournament too early for Belgium to win something. They need more tournament experience.
SOCCER AMERICA: England?
BRAD FRIEDEL: I think for the English this is probably first time they’ve gone to a big event in quite some time where they don’t have the press expecting them to win it. Roy Hodgson has managed that well. And England has a lot more attacking options and promising young players. It's probably too early for them to win it. But I see them advancing out of their group.
SOCCER AMERICA: What’s something you hope to see at this World Cup?
BRAD FRIEDEL: I would like to see the world’s two players really come to the fore. I would like to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have wonderful World Cups. I’m sick of people saying, “But they never played well in a World Cup so they’re not the best.”