Editor’s Note: This is the third piece in a four-piece “State of the (US Soccer) Union” running in the build-up to the March World Cup qualifiers. Garrett McInnis broke down the US defense in part one. Neil W. Blackmon covered the midfield dilemma for Jurgen Klinsmann in part two. Today we discuss goalkeepers.
Some horrifying news broke out of Liverpool earlier this week when United States captain, demi-god, and starting goalkeeper Tim Howard was diagnosed with two broken bones in his back following Everton’s FA Cup clash with Oldham. This news sent shock waves throughout the USMNT faithful, with Howard joining a group including defenders Fabian Johnson and Steve Cherundolo and forward Clint Dempsey on the injured reserve list. While head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has stated that both Johnson and Dempsey should be available for the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico, Cherundolo and more importantly Howard will miss the camp at a crucial time when the United States needs to claim at least four points from the two matches.
The United States faithful can take heart though, as Brad Guzan seems to have finally established himself in the EPL with Aston Villa after serving as understudy to Brad Friedel and Shay Given. The 28 year old Guzan has firmly entrenched himself as the first name on the team sheet for Villa, and despite the club’s dismal season thus far, Guzan can count himself as one of the one of the Villains few bright spots. Guzan is a better than average shot stopper and has proven to be a vocal leader in the back at Villa, something the United States will need in earnest with Tim Howard out with injury and the also aging Carlos Bocanegra on uncertain ground both at club and country level. If Klinsmann sticks with the centerback pairing of Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron for the Costa Rica and Mexico matches, then Guzan will have to really help in communication and organization, something the inexperienced centerbacks struggled with against Honduras, even with Howard barking orders behind them. The good news? Tim Howard said in January that Brad Guzan “would throw his face in front of a train if it would stop the ball”, and that’s the type of aggressive, passionate player any world class keeper would want as his faithful understudy.
Ready or not, Guzan will get his long deserved chance in a meaningful time next week with the national team for the first time in his career, as Tim Howard has had that position on lock down since 2007. Howard seems to put in historic performances with the national team on a regular basis and Guzan has had to watch patiently from the bench for years, only getting opportunities in intermittent friendlies and the occasional World Cup qualifier. He got his World Cup qualifying debut in 2008 against Barbados after the US had established a 8-0 lead through the first leg, and later in qualifiers against Trinidad & Tobago and Guatemala after the US had secured a birth in to the next round of qualifying. Guzan’s most notable contribution to the US was probably the shut out he pitched at the 2009 Confederations Cup against Egypt, which helped spurn the US to a knock out round birth against Spain. We all know what happened next, but we also know that even Bob Bradley probably didn’t think the Americans were advancing on that day, or Tim Howard would have been between the sticks.
Behind Guzan, the “Marcus Hahnemann” of this round of World Cup Qualifying seems to be Real Salt Lake shot-stopper Nick Rimando. Rimando is arguably the most talented ‘keeper in Major League Soccer, but is a full half-foot shorter than Guzan. It’s hard to justify having a 5’10” goalkeeper on the international level. Expect to see Rimando get the call for these upcoming qualifiers to back up Guzan due to his experience. Rimando has played (and performed well) in central American venues in the CONCACAF Champions League, so he has much needed experience in the hostile CONCACAF enviornments and if called upon, is unlikely to rattle.
Rimando will get the backup nod over other promising MLS goalkeepers such as promising youngsters Sean Johnson of the Chicago Fire and Bill Hamid of DC United. Johnson appears to have edged out Hamid, for now, on Jurgen Klinsmann’s depth chart, but it is entirely too early in their careers to say with any certainty who has the brighter international future. Both offer great athleticism, although Hamid tends to incorporate athleticism and aggressiveness into his play a bit more at this early stage in their careers, for better and for worse. Philadelphia’s Zac MacMath was, interestingly, more highly touted than either Johnson or Hamid as a prospect, but has played without great confidence early in his career for the Union and appears to have fallen behind the other two for the time being.
As far as this month is concerned, Klinsmann seems confident. “Obviously we are sorry for Timmy Howard not being there because of his injury, but most important is that he gets healthy again and 100 percent fit again, which he will do in a few weeks,” Klinsmann said this week in an interview with mlssoccer.com. Klinsmann also identified Rimando as the two ‘keepers the United States will rely on for the upcoming qualifiers.
I wouldn’t expect much experimentation at this point in the cycle outside of the five players mentioned. Houston Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall was named to the January camp and may have impressed enough to get called in should an emergency arise. Another name to keep an eye on is Honefoss goalkeeper Steve Clark, who was named the Norwegian Tippeligaen’s top goalkeeper in 2012. Another name on the rise is United States U-20 shot-stopper Cody Cropper, who impressed with the United States U-20 team during their recent run in the CONCACAF U-20 World Cup Qualification tournament, where the team finished as runners up to rival Mexico. Cropper is still years away from a full team call-up, and will need to focus on landing a role with his club side Southampton. Like Guzan early in his career, Cropper seems a bit slow off his line at times, but he also is a physically imposing figure who plays with intelligence and offers booming distribution. He will certainly be in the mix come 2018. Were things to get extremely desperate, Brad Friedel has tweeted recently that were Howard and Guzan to both go down with injury, that he would come out of international retirement to help the US. Friedel is a loyal soldier, but if it gets to that point, the Americans are likely in trouble.
Tim Howard is only expected to miss about a month,so if Brad Guzan or any other keepers are to make their move, now is certainly the time. There have been some who have whispered, not too loudly, that based on club form alone, Guzan should have gotten the nod regardless. Tim Howard hasn’t been his usual spectacular self at Everton this year to be sure, but these whispers seem like argument for argument’s sake. The reality is Tim Howard is still the best goalkeeper in the American system. He’s a proven commodity and he’s fought these battles before. Even so, with him injured, it is nice to know the player deputizing is in great form in a difficult league (indeed, his manager called his play “colossal” this week). It’s a big moment for Brad Guzan, and really the first chance he’s had since the Beijing Olympics to shine for country. But one shouldn’t expect Guzan to perform heroically and Tim Howard to go the way of Wally Pipp. The job is Howard’s when he’s healthy, and the US are fortunate to have a capable deputy. All things told, while the loss of Howard certainly does hurt, United States’ fans and more importantly Jurgen Klinsmann can rest assured that the pipes of the US goal are in capable hands.