Examining the USMNT goalkeeping situation in 2020. Who pushes and backs up Steffen?
April 02, 2020
WHEN YOU look at the first 25 years of the modern era of the U.S. national team from 1989-2014, it was impressive how steady and reliable the goalkeeping was. Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, and Tim Howard were stars while keepers like Brad Guzan, Marcus Hahnemann, Jurgen Sommer, and Nick Rimando were all outstanding backup options with impressive resumes.
That’s not the case anymore. Over the past two years, the goalkeeping hierarchy is as murky as it has ever been in the modern era. We know the first-choice keeper is Zack Steffen but he has missed a lot of time the past year with injuries. Beyond him, it is unclear what the order is. Is it an older but more experienced veteran? Or is it someone in his prime?
The biggest reason for concern is that U.S youth national teams have not produced starting quality goalkeepers at a steady rate in MLS or abroad in a very long time. The exception is obviously Zack Steffen. Ethan Horvath once appeared to be a very promising goalkeeper and perhaps he will return to that trajectory. But for now, he is a backup.
When you look at the U.S. U-20 goalkeepers over the last eight cycles, the number of first-team starters in MLS or abroad is very low.
- 2005: Quentin Westberg, Andrew Kartunen, Justin Hughes
- 2007: Chris Seitz, Brian Perk, Steven Sandbo
- 2009: Brian Perk, Josh Landbo, Sean Johnson
- 2011: Zac MacMath, Cody Cropper
- 2013: Cody Cropper, Kendall McIntosh, Zack Steffen
- 2015: Zack Steffen, Thomas Olsen, Jeff Caldwell (Horvath release was withdrawn)
- 2017: Jonathan Klinsmann, JT Marcinkowski, Brady Scott
- 2019: Brady Scott, David Ochoa, CJ Dos Santos
Steffen is the best of the bunch. Johnson was a third string keeper in 2009 but has had a nice career and is in the USMNT picture now. MacMath and Seitz have occasionally been in situations where they are starters with MLS teams. Westberg is the starter for Toronto but spend most of his career in the lower levels of France.
But while a few good goalkeepers have been identified at the youth level, the U.S. national team is at a point where it might soon have to be dependent on late-bloomers who developed beyond the youth national team setup. And that matches what we now see in MLS where, over the last several years, it has been very rare for young domestic keepers to earn minutes.
The good news, however, is that the position of goalkeeping is generally older by nature, late-blooming isn’t all that uncommon, and the shelf-life of keepers can be very long. If you can identify two solid goalkeepers in their mid-twenties, that can hold a situation for a decade. But right now, the U.S. is struggling for younger and dependable backups behind Steffen.
Until a more set hierarchy is known among these options and established by manager Gregg Berhalter, we can only guess. But we do have pretty good idea as to who consists of the pool now, and the players who might emerge.
This is the third segment of looking at the USMNT depth charg. Previously we did central defense and the No. 6 defensive midfield positions.
Zack Steffen: Steffen is obviously the U.S. national team’s first choice right now. He’s the only American starter in a top European league and has been a mainstay with the U.S. national team and youth national teams for nearly a decade. He’s finally maturing into a No. 1 but still needs to be cleaner in his distribution. But he’s very far beyond his backups at the moment but with him also dealing with knee pain the past six months, the lack of a backup near his level is a huge concern. Keller and Friedel pushed each other and made each other better (and the gap between the two wasn't wide). Hahnemann, Guzan, and Rimando pushed Howard and everyone was better for it. No one is really pushing Steffen, and that is not good for anyone.
Prime age backup options
Sean Johnson: If the U.S. was participating in a World Cup this summer, there is a good chance Sean Johnson would be the No. 2. The Georgia native has been the starter for a New York City team that is still among the top tier in MLS. At 30, he is at a good age for a keeper.
Bill Hamid: Hamid and Johnson have been competing with each other in the national team and youth national team pecking order for well over a decade. Both are reliable shot stoppers and neither are known for playing well with the ball at their feet. Hamid is likely behind Johnson right now but the difference between the two is smally and will come down to form at the moment.
Tyler Miller: The New Jersey native is entering into his prime years as a goalkeeper and had the experience of starting for a very good LAFC team the past two seasons. Miller is now on a Minnesota team that is also very good. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he can move beyond Hamid and Johnson if he shows well in 2020 and 2021.
Matt Turner: At 25, Turner still has a long road to go in his career and his 2019 season with New England was his best to date. But now that he is on the map, can he continue to grow?
Ethan Horvath: It has been a rough season for Ethan Horvath at Club Brugge who lost his starting job when the club opted to sign Simon Mignolet. Horvath is one a few American goalkeepers in Europe and has had stretches where he lost confidence and has been shaky. He desperately needs a move and to a place where he can rebuild his confidence.
David Bingham: Bingham has three caps to his name and is still just 30. He is also the starter for a Galaxy team that is among the more high-profile teams in the league. But he has work to do in order to pass Johnson, Hamid, Miller, Turner and Horvath while also not being pushed out by the older guys too.
There is a very good case to be made that the third goalkeeper on a national team should be used on an experienced player and not a young prospect. Of course, it would be nice to give the experience to a younger player but that doesn’t consider what happens if the third goalkeeper actually needs to play. If a third goalkeeper needs to play in a critical game, something has gone very wrong either through injuries, suspensions, or a lack of confidence or form.
So if something has gone wrong, a settling and reassuring veteran presence in goal can be a calming presence for the rest of the team as opposed to a kid who is not used to that environment. In the past, the U.S. team has had great No. 3 options in Rimando, Hahnemann, Meola, Sommer – who all had excellent experience and the trust of their teammates.
Fortunately for the U.S. team, there are still some pretty good options here.
Brad Guzan: Guzan, 35, has played huge games for the U.S. team and still might be the No. 2 on the team at the moment. But that cannot last for too much longer. He will be 38 at the next World Cup and every player succumbs to Father Time eventually. Still, even at that age he would still be a great presence on the team should it be forced into playing the No. 3 keeper. He is well respected, well liked, and has a lot of experience at all levels to be a calming presence on the team should he have to play. Based on his play with Atlanta, he’s not what he was 10 years ago, but he can still help a team win games.
Stefan Frei: Frei, 33, is a good case of “what could have been?” for U.S. national team fans. He’s one of the best goalkeepers in MLS and has helped Seattle to two titles. It’s not his talent but the fact that the Swiss-born Frei wasn’t able to attain his American citizenship until he was 31 yeas old that is the real "what-if." Had he always been eligible for the U.S. team, he certainly would have earned caps and perhaps have been the No. 2. But by the time he became an American, managers were looking at other options. The reality, however, is that he’s still really good and not a bad option in back of Stefan as the No. 3 or maybe even the No. 2.
Tim Melia: One of the best American-born players in MLS to never have been called-up to the U.S. national team. He’s been an MLS Goalkeeper of the Year for a very good Sporting Kansas City and there he serves as a member of the team’s core. At 33, his national team debut will probably never come but in a pinch, he would probably have the respect of his players right away.
A look at the future
There are a lot of players listed here who pushing 30 or are beyond 30. Which players out there are the ones who could emerge? Here are just a few.
David Ochoa: The likely starter for the U.S. U-20 team already has a U-20 World Cup under his belt. He is also in the U-23 picture both now and likely again in 2024 if he continues to play well. He also has substantial USL experience with the Monarchs but can he begin to make inroads with Real Salt Lake? That has always been the hardest step but Ochoa has had a great mentor in Nick Rimando over the years.
Brady Scott: The most recent U-20 goalkeeper, Scott is trying to find his way in Germany. He needs minutes and his next step will likely be a move within Europe to a lower league where he can start.
Damian Las: The most recent U.S. U-17 team goalkeeper is now at Fulham where he is working his way up through the team’s ladder. He is still a ways off but he has a lot of youth national team opportunities as well to also build his resume.