It's a universal given in the NFL that the quarterback is the most important player on the team. For the most part, the goalkeeper does not get the same respect or glory in soccer. But as with quarterbacks, the goalkeeper is a critical element to any team's success. If you don't have a solid backup, your ambitions can go south in a hurry. So for fans of the U.S. national team, the reemergence of Brad Guzan in the last month is a welcome sight indeed.
On Saturday, Guzan and Tim Howard were both at Villa Park. Howard, the first man on both the Everton and U.S. national team sheets, started yet again for the Toffees. In the Aston Villa net, Guzan gave way to Shay Given as the veteran Irish goalkeeper has recovered from a hamstring injury. Given has been out since the beginning of December, granting Guzan parole from the goalkeeper's witness protection program. And the 2007 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year has taken the opportunity to demonstrate he's a worthy EPL player.
Chris Brunskill/Getty ImagesBrad Guzan's contributions while filling in as Aston Villa goalkeeper have included saving a penalty kick in an FA Cup win.
This week Villa manager Alex McLeish described Guzan's play as "fantastic." Guzan saved a penalty kick against Bristol Rovers in the FA Cup last weekend, and his confidence is surely at its highest for some time. The Illinois native moved to Villa from Chivas USA in the summer of 2008 yet had barely played a game in front of the Holte End faithful since. Two loan spells at Hull City saw him get some playing time last season, but a reunion with the Villa Park bench seemed his destiny for this season.
That is, until the always reliable Given got injured. And that's why Guzan getting playing time is important to Jurgen Klinsmann. Howard is a colossus, the consensus Number One, and a player who never misses a game and is sure to be an anchor of the U.S. 2014 World Cup team. The same, of course, could be said for Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL. But the demise this season of the Colts after their legend was felled by injury puts into stark relief the need for good relief if your A-list star does go down.
Klinsmann, quite rightly, is a big believer in playing time. He tends to select only players for the national team if they are getting regular minutes with their club teams. Klinsmann predecessor Bob Bradley kept faith with Guzan as his Number Two behind Howard after his move to the EPL. Even though he had barely played for two seasons at Aston Villa, Guzan was included on Bradley's 2010 World Cup squad. But even Bradley couldn't keep faith with a goalkeeper watching more games than the typical season ticker holder. Last summer, when Guzan's wedding clashed with the Gold Cup, and he missed the tournament, rightly or wrongly speculation was rife that the newlywed had snubbed the national team and his old coach who had been very loyal to him in tough times.
Bradley is gone, but Guzan might now be ready to come back to the national team fold. He may also be back in MLS soon, if reports linking him to the New York Red Bulls are accurate. At 27, Guzan is not old for a goalkeeper, but he's too old to be sitting on the bench. He's also too talented. His career is at a critical juncture. In the last month he's put himself in the shop window again and demonstrated a new maturity and more assurances on taking high crosses. But he needs to play, whether it's at Villa, the Red Bulls or elsewhere.
D.C. United's Bill Hamid and the Chicago Fire's Sean Johnson are young, talented goalkeepers who have the potential to take on the mantle of Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and Howard as U.S. stalwarts in the future. But they are risky propositions as Howard's Number Two right now and heading toward Brazil 2014. So risky that Klinsmann hasn't given either a half in a friendly yet. That will change this month with upcoming games against Venezuela and Panama for which Howard is not available.
Barring injury, Howard will be in goal for the Italy game in February, and for years to come. But finding Howard's backup is still on Klinsmann's long "to-do list." A strong argument can be made that Friedel is still the best American goalkeeper in the game, but he walked away from the international stage long ago. He won't be coming back. So, it would be great for the U.S. national team if Guzan's recent comeback continued.