By Ridge Mahoney
Tony Meola stifles England in 1993. Brad Friedel excels at the 2002 World Cup. Kasey Keller thwarts Costa Rica with a triple-save in 2005. Tim Howard stones Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup and dazzles the world against Belgium in 2014.
The past few decades of the U.S. men’s national team includes these outstanding goalkeeping performances and perhaps another dozen or so that were absolutely essential to success in Gold Cup matches and Hexagonal qualifiers, especially those on the road. As players and coaches have arrived and departed, one constant for the U.S. team has been its goalkeeping, so much so that much of the time a controversy rages about which one should be No. 1.
Former head coaches Steve Sampson and Bruce Arena antagonized Keller and Friedel by platooning them. The emergence of Howard dovetailed with Friedel’s retirement from the national team, and after Keller started all three games at the 2006 World Cup and Arena was replaced by Bob Bradley, Howard took over the starter’s job and played 87 games from 2007 to 2014.
Now Howard is back to being a backup, as he was for Meola with the MetroStars in his first MLS season in 1998, Friedel at the 2000 Olympic Games, and Keller in 2006. But there’s little evidence another keeper controversy is about to flare up. In this case, the younger man is the one who will have to be dislodged.
Brad Guzan, 31, seized an opportunity granted by Howard’s hiatus from the national team with a string of solid showings last year at the Gold Cup and got the start last October in a playoff against Mexico that the Americans lost, 3-2. He was caught slightly off his angle by Paul Aguilar’s incredible extra-time strike (and may not have saved it anyway).
Guzan and Howard alternated starts in World Cup qualifiers in November and March, and prior to the Copa America Centenario, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann quelled any speculation in this regard by proclaiming Guzan as the starter. The keeper has responded.
His sharp game last Saturday against Paraguay with the Americans down to 10 men for most of the second half included a classic one-v-one stop versus a wide-open Diego Lezcano and a bang-bang, double save during a helter-skelter scramble. While it wasn’t quite the signature game his predecessors have on their resumes, it punctuated a string of seven consecutive starts marked by reliable goalkeeping and a defensive unit growing in cohesion and confidence.
The best-case scenario is that a team rarely if ever needs a crazed octopus in goal, indicating that the field players have done the brunt of the work to earn a result. In the case of Guzan, the Americans needed big moments from him only three or four times, not the eight or 10 or 12 as had been the case with Meola, Keller, and Friedel, and 16-20 as per Howard.
Klinsmann is drawing praise for the starting the same XI in each Centenario game yet it has to be said that the players, even those who struggled in the opener against Colombia, have earned the right to keep their places. Foremost in this regard is Guzan, who like his goalkeeping colleague hasn’t been enjoying life at the club level.
The club fortunes of both keepers went sour during the 2015-16 Premier League season. Howard lost his starting spot at Everton in January and after signing a deal in March to play in MLS with Colorado rode the bench until handed start for the final two home games, During a stirring tribute staged at Goodison Park for the season finale, he described himself as “an Evertonian for life” even as that memorable portion of his life came to a close.
Guzan endured harsh criticism as Aston Villa, which had bought his contract from MLS in 2008 for $1 million, stumbled through its worst season in 26 years and was relegated. He has said he will not make any decisions regarding his club future until after the Centenario, which is precisely what he should say -- and do -- given his current situation.
Concentrating on the task at hand is essential for any player, but more so for goalkeepers, who if they concede a goal must shut it out of their minds once the game resumes. They must also bring their full focus to training sessions as well as games, since their skills and sharpness could fade if they aren’t seriously tested in a particular match.
Since they started attending national-team camps together Guzan and Howard have praised each other’s work habits as well as performances. Having two talented, experienced goalkeepers on the same roster necessitates them training together even as they compete for the starting spot both of them covet. Coaches can tweak and fiddle with other positions to spread out playing time but who to play in goal is a binary decision.
Fortunately for Klinsmann, his top two keepers are consummate pros. They don’t gripe if they don’t start. Howard, 37, begins the next -- and presumably final -- phase of his career next month in Colorado. Guzan could wind up in MLS as well though he certainly has the contacts and track record to find another good job overseas.
His teammates have always expressed confidence in Guzan, who has been around long enough to realize that the unique pressures on a keeper in a knockout setting make the next game the most important one. A fluff or bobble or bad goal against Ecuador could wipe away Paraguay memories very quickly, and that is a reality every keeper must accept and understand.