By Ridge Mahoney
Try as they might, critics of U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard just haven’t been able to push backup Brad Guzan ahead of him on the depth chart.
Every minor error he may commit for the national team or in the Premier League with Everton prompts calls for Guzan, whose club, Aston Villa, is about a two hour drive away in Birmingham and, safe to say, provides him with a lot more action week after week.
Yet despite conceding 126 goals in 74 games during the past two seasons since taking over the starting job from former Irish international Shay Given, Guzan is consistently praised and credited as one of the main reasons Villa has avoided relegation. He’s been credited with 235 saves the past two seasons. To give those numbers some perspective, during the same time frame Howard has allowed 77 goals and made 203 saves in 73 games for a much better team.
“He’s a fantastic goalkeeper,” says Howard. “Every element of his mental makeup and his physical attributes make him a top, top goalkeeper. So [his success] doesn’t surprise me.”
The dynamics between the two are radically different than those of a dozen years ago, when Brad Freidel and Kasey Keller were platooned by former head coaches Steve Sampson and Bruce Arena, and weren’t shy about complaining about it. Keller stuck it out longer than did Friedel, who officially retired from the national team in 2005 and is still playing in the Premier League at 42.
Howard has been Everton’s first-choice keeper since 2007, which is about the same time he took over in the U.S. goal for Keller. Guzan has steadily stayed in the chase, even when he mostly sat on the bench during his first four seasons after leaving Chivas USA for Villa, where he played behind Friedel.
Guzan played just one game in his first season (2008-09) after being transferred from Chivas USA and didn’t play a single Premier League minute the next two years. He got all of seven games during the 2011-12 campaign; Villa had signed Irish international Shay Given when Friedel moved to Tottenham.
Since taking over the starting role at Villa, Guzan has displayed the quick reflexes, savvy positioning and brave confidence that had established him as one of the top MLS keepers as the starter for Chivas USA. It seems eons ago but with Guzan in goal, Chivas USA actually qualified for the playoffs.
“Things have obviously changed a lot since I’ve left the club,” says Guzan, an Illinois native who ended his collegiate career at South Carolina after two seasons to sign a Generation Adidas contract with MLS. Chivas USA took him with the second overall pick in the 2005 SuperDraft. In his third season he was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.
“When I was there, we had some pretty successful years. That really helped me, because I was coming into the professional scene early in my career, and being around such good professionals at that time -- guys like Claudio Suarez, Paco Palencia, Ramon [Ramirez], Jesse Marsch, Ante Razov -- these guys really helped me to understand what it takes to be at the highest level.”
Villa paid approximately $1 million to acquire him in July 2008, and aside from brief opportunities such as a League Cup match against Sunderland in which he saved a penalty kick in regular time and three more in a shootout, he rode the bench. He played on loan with Hull City for a month early in 2011. After Friedel left at the end of that season, Guzan played behind Given until the Irishman suffered a torn hamstring in a game against Manchester United and Guzan replaced him.
Though he didn’t claim the starting job right away and the club released him the following June, it quickly re-signed him in time for a tour of the United States. He’s been the starter ever since. He signed a new deal with Villa that binds him to the club until 2017.
“It’s never easy, especially in Europe, and in the Premier League it’s always a competitive fight for spots,” says Guzan, 30. “When you get an opportunity you have to be ready and you have to take it. If you don’t take that chance, that might be your one and only chance and then your career can go sideways and you don’t know what’s around the corner. You have to be ready and you have to prove yourself week-in and week-out.”
Along with No. 3 Nick Rimando, Guzan enjoys the blend of camaraderie and competitiveness unique to the position. A coach can slot in field players here and there, but the backup keeper knows well his only chance is to beat out the No. 1.
Howard and Rimando are both 35, so the goalkeeping pool adds up to a century of years. But this team doesn’t seem to need a young hotshot keeper pushing the veterans. In their training sessions mentored by former England keeper Chris Woods the intensity is tinged with enjoyment.
“He’s been brilliant at Villa, and Nicky’s been brilliant for about the last 25 years in MLS,” says Howard. “I’ve never felt pressure from a goalkeeper behind me or guys that I train with. I always keep my standards very high and when I start looking over my shoulder I lose focus on what’s in front of me. Those guys are good friends of mine. We train hard together.”
Guzan is the heir-apparent to take over for Howard, though there’s no sense the incumbent’s departure is imminent and the depth chart can change at any time. Guzan knows the drill. He’s gone through it enough times.
“At the end of the day, we’re both professional enough to realize that only one of us can play,” says Guzan. “We’ve got a good relationship in the sense of pushing each other. I like to think I make him a better goalkeeper and I know he makes me a better goalkeeper. When you create that atmosphere in training, it benefits everybody.
“There’s no sense in moaning and complaining. Yes, I want to play, but at the same time it’s up to the manager, he makes that decision, and you have to get on with it.”