081613new__isi_howardandguzan_usmntjt0526122421 John Todd/isiphotos.com
Goalkeeper switch

Brad Guzan Should Start Over Tim Howard on Tues.

Has the Aston Villa goalkeeper's performance surpassed that of his Everton compadre? Blake Thomsen argues that the United States No. 2 should really be the United States No. 1.
BY Blake Thomsen Posted
September 09, 2013
5:06 PM
IF JURGEN KLINSMANN wants to give his team its best chance to continue the streak of home qualifying wins against Mexico, he should start Brad Guzan over Tim Howard.

It’s unlikely that Klinsmann will remove Howard from his number one role—especially before Tuesday—but Guzan represents the better option against the desperate El Tri. Guzan has arguably outperformed Howard in the Premier League over the past 15 months, and Howard’s patchy form for Everton appears to be carrying over into the national team.

Howard’s display on Friday in Costa Rica was his poorest for the USMNT in a long time.

Admittedly, no one in the U.S. backline had a good match, but Howard’s performance was particularly concerning. The Ticos’ second and third goals highlighted some of the growing concerns about Howard’s game that have surfaced over the past few years.

Primarily, questions have been raised about Howard’s athleticism. “Athleticism” is very difficult to quantify, but it appears that Howard’s has declined recently. This is not surprising whatsoever, considering Howard is now 34 years old.

Some goalkeepers get better with age, as their positioning and decision-making improve year after year. However, this is not the case with Howard. His athleticism is by far his best attribute, and he relied on this all-world athleticism to become a top-five keeper in the world towards the end of the last decade. As his athleticism has slipped, so has his overall performance.

Celso Borges’ 10th-minute header is a great example of a shot that an in-his-prime Howard may have kept out. This time, the explosive dive and fingertip save never materializes. Instead, Howard takes an unconvincing half-step before realizing he is powerless to stop the ball from skipping past him.

On the Ticos’ third goal, we see problems caused by Howard’s growing tendency to stay on his line instead of claiming or clearing balls in behind the back four. Here’s Joel Campbell’s breakaway goal in real time. Campbell’s scuffed finish beats Howard—which in itself raises questions—but we’ll give the goalkeeper the benefit of the doubt because the shot was taken so close to him. However, with closer analysis we can see just how easily Howard could have come and cleared the hopeful ball over the top well before Campbell reached it. Note Campbell’s position on the field when the pass/clearance is played. The Costa Rica striker is in his own half of the field when he begins to chase after the ball. Around a second later, Howard comes into the frame. As he should be, he’s positioned about a step beyond the 18-yard box, which I’ve traced in red. He’s in the perfect position to recognize the situation and come clear the ball to safety.

But instead, he retreats.

Now look at where Campbell first touches the ball. He can’t be much more than 10 yards away from Howard’s starting position, which I’ve approximated with the rectangle. Campbell comes all the way from his own half—a distance of approximately 40 yards—before first touching the ball. Surely Howard could have easily dealt with the ball by coming out to clear it to safety. But he did not, allowing Campbell to barely outrace Matt Besler and then slide the ball through Howard's legs to seal the victory.

Hesitance to come out is generally a function of lacking confidence, and Howard certainly did not look confident as he retreated deeper and deeper into the box before conceding the dagger third goal.

It must be said that we’re certainly in subjective territory here when dealing strictly with athleticism, aggression off the line, and confidence. But consider Howard’s recent USMNT save percentage for something a little more concrete.

In the qualifying cycle for the 2014 World Cup—including both semifinal and Hex matches—Howard’s save percentage sits at just 62.5 percent. To see just how big of a decline this is, one has to go back to Howard’s excellent level pre-World Cup 2010. In the qualifying cycle for the 2010 World Cup, Howard’s save percentage was a robust 74.5 percent, 12 points higher than in the current cycle.

The chief culprit for Howard’s recent lower numbers is likely his decline in athleticism and aggression. Granted, other factors do come into play—quality of opposition, defense in front of him, etc. But overall, his save percentage is dropping because he’s simply unable to reach as many shots as he once could. Or in some cases, he’s unable or unwilling to come out and smother through balls beyond the back four.

The case for Guzan is less statistically driven because he has played in far fewer games for the U.S. than Howard has.

The 28-year-old deserves enormous credit, though, for keeping clean sheets in both of his Hex starts. And those weren’t exactly easy matches. Guzan first kept Costa Rica at bay in the SnoClasico before doing nothing less than shutting Mexico out at the Azteca.

Howard’s only two clean sheets in five Hex starts have been against Panama and Honduras at home. And unlike Howard, Guzan is in the form of his life, picking up the Aston Villa Player of the Season award ahead of even Christian Benteke, who scored 19 league goals. This compilation from last season showcases all of Guzan’s best attributes—athleticism, sound decision-making, and fearlessness. At age 28, Guzan appears to be firmly in the middle of his prime, whereas the 34-year-old Howard is years removed from his previous top-five in the world level. Some have suggested that Howard’s organizational skills are superior to Guzan’s and thus a goalkeeping switch would be foolhardy at this stage. But Guzan has clearly proven he can marshal a young backline, as shown by the shutouts against Costa Rica and Mexico in the Hex. He’s also far more accustomed to directing an inexperienced back four than Howard is.

At Everton, Howard has benefitted from considerable continuity in front of him, especially in the center back department, with the experienced Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka shielding Howard’s goal for a number of years.

On the other hand, Guzan’s Aston Villa side employs a constantly changing back four. The unit that beat Arsenal at the Emirates on opening day had an average age of just 24. Guzan would be ready to work with whatever patchwork defense the U.S. deploys on Tuesday simply because he does it on a weekly basis with his club team.

The magnitude of the game won’t unsettle Guzan, either. He kept his nerve playing in a blizzard and also at the storied Azteca, so there’s no reason to think he can’t continue his run of quality performances in big games.

With all of this in mind, it’s time to instill Brad Guzan as the U.S. No. 1. He’s confident, in form, and in his athletic prime. There is absolutely no room for sentimentality when it comes to qualifying for the World Cup, especially before a game against a bitter rival.

Given the questionable defense the Yanks will field on Tuesday night, they will need a strong performance in net. At the moment, Brad Guzan is more likely to produce one than Tim Howard.

Is it time for Brad Guzan to step in? Who’s more likely to get the U.S. three points on Tuesday?

Blake Thomsen is an ASN contributor and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter. Statistics courtesy of US Soccer and the Washington Post.

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