Taking Stock: The State of the American Goalkeeper
March 22, 2017
PUNDITS AROUND THE WORLD love to point out how the United States has never produced a truly “world class” player. For a country so large, they posit, the fact that no American has made a lasting mark on world football is simply astonishing. But all these supposed experts are forgetting one important thing: goalkeepers are people too.
From Tony Meola to Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel to Tim Howard, the U.S. men’s national team has enjoyed a steady, two-plus decade run of top-quality goalkeeping that would be the envy of almost any footballing nation. Keller, Friedel, Howard, and Brad Guzan have all enjoyed extended runs in the English Premier League, with each serving as full-time starters for their respective teams and spending at least five seasons in England. Howard and Friedel, in fact, are two of only 14 goalkeepers ever to record 100-plus clean sheets in Premier League play.
For the first time since the days of Meola, the U.S. is in danger of not qualifying for the World Cup. Long a source of depth and strength, the goalkeepers have now become one of the biggest question marks swirling around Bruce Arena's side as the all-important matchups with Honduras and Panama loom on the horizon. With January Camp firmly in the rearview mirror, the MLS season underway, and the roster set for the upcoming qualifiers, here's a look at the state of the American goalkeeper.
Arena initially announced a very familiar group of goalkeepers for the upcoming Honduras and Panama matches: Howard, Guzan, and Nick Rimando. It’s the same group that comprised the U.S. goalkeeping corps at the 2014 World Cup, and would have represented a sense of continuity for a team that continues to have a revolving door of players manning other defensive spots. Guzan bowed out, however, due to the imminent birth of his second child. David Bingham took his spot on the team.
Looking at Arena’s preferred goalkeeping triumvirate, the overall resumes of Howard and Guzan are beyond reproach. Howard has more than 100 caps for the national team, and Guzan showed in the Copa America Centenario last summer that he too can be a top-level international goalkeeper. But no position on the field embodies the idea of "what have you done for me lately" more than the goalkeeper, and in both Howard and Guzan's cases the answer is: not much.
After leaving Everton and returning to MLS last year, Howard was outstanding for a Colorado Rapids team that had the stingiest defense in the league. Howard was a big part of that superlative, posting seven clean sheets in his 17 starts and helping the Rapids reach the MLS Western Conference Final. He was named team co-MVP in the process. But his injury in November against Mexico—a fracture of the adductor longus, essentially a groin tear—required surgery and put him out of action until he returned for the Rapids on March 11. He also just turned 38 years old. Although Howard's performances of late have certainly belied his age (he was quite sharp in his debut), you're kidding yourself if you think he's going to come back, strap on his cape, and crank out Belgium-level 16-save performances again.
So what about Guzan, you ask? After all, he's still playing in the Premier League. Well, "playing" may be a bit of a generous assessment; the 32-year-old has had a front row seat for Middlesbrough's dismal campaign, making just seven total appearances to date after conceding a Premier League-worst 58 goals last season in 28 games for transcendentally horrible Aston Villa. His last appearance for the U.S. wasn't exactly one for the record books, either. After losing the starting job to Howard (who subsequently came off injured 39 minutes into the World Cup qualifier against Mexico), Guzan conceded the game-winning goal to El Tri and then presided over the U.S.' 4-0 shellacking at the hands of Costa Rica. Will a return to MLS this July buoy Guzan's confidence the same way it did for Howard last year? American fans are certainly hoping so.
The most in-form goalkeeper of the three may, in fact, be the 37-year-old Rimando. The MLS stalwart has quietly amassed 22 caps for the U.S., with his most notable contribution for his country coming in the team's march to the 2013 Gold Cup title (5-0-0 with a clean sheet in the final). His 2017 is off to a great start: In MLS’ opening weekend, he posted a clean sheet against Toronto that included the 29th penalty kick save of his career, with that performance coming on the heels of a clean sheet for the U.S. in the January friendly against Serbia. If recent form were more important than overall track record when it comes to who gets the nod in net, Rimando might be the man for these all-important matches.
In his Facebook Live chat after initially announcing the roster, Arena was not quite ready to anoint any one of the three as the starter, saying that “I feel very comfortable playing any of them.” However, his follow-up comment may have shed a bit more light on where the U.S. coach is leaning for his first competitive match back in charge.
Arena indicated that health would be a key factor in his decision, adding that, “Once we get into camp Sunday and we see how our players get out of the weekend matches and how they look in training, we’ll determine who starts in the goal.” While bland on the surface, that comment seems to be pointed at the one goalkeeper who is recovering from an injury: Howard. Considering Arena’s implication and the fact that his closest competition (Guzan) never even made it to camp, it sure sounds like the job is Howard’s to lose.
The January Crew
The U.S. finished January camp with four goalkeepers: Rimando, Bingham, Luis Robles, and Brian Rowe (although Rowe was cut from the final 23-man rosters for friendlies against Serbia and Jamaica). Of those, none is under the age of 27. So while it's always nice to record a couple clean sheets as the U.S. did in the two friendlies, there wasn't much to judge, at least from an outsider's perspective. Against Jamaica, Robles and Bingham each played one half and barely touched the ball apart from collecting crosses and distributing to teammates. Similarly, the Serbia match was a snoozer for Rimando—apart from a crucial late-game stop that preserved the shutout.
Rimando’s performance earned him a call-up for the upcoming qualifiers, making him the clear winner of the January competition. Bingham’s last-minute addition in the wake of Guzan’s departure is certainly a feather in his cap, although it seems highly unlikely that he will see the field.
At least in the short term, there may be a bit of a lid on how high any of these goalkeepers can ascend in the pecking order considering the slate of qualifiers ahead. The next (and possibly last) chance for this group could come in this summer’s Gold Cup, where the U.S. has traditionally given in-form North America-based players an opportunity to prove that they can perform in competitive international matches.
The Recently Injured
Both Bill Hamid (knee) and Stefan Frei (ankle) missed January Camp with injuries, disappointing developments for two goalkeepers hoping to get in the mix for the U.S. goalkeeping spot. Both put together strong MLS seasons last year, with Hamid finishing fourth in the voting for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year (having won the award in 2014) and Frei making what will likely be the most famous save of his life to help the Sounders win the MLS Cup.
The problem for these two, as it so often is for talented but oft-injured goalkeepers, is the numbers game. Neither is especially young (Hamid is 26 and Frei is 30), and this January may have been their last, best chance to elevate their standing in U.S. soccer's crowded player pool.
Let's get really technical for a second: In soccer, only one goalkeeper can play at a time. That means for both Hamid and Frei there are a whole bunch of people ahead of them to leapfrog before they can see the field for the national team. While both, if healthy, have the ability to make a run at the wide open starting job, it's going to be an uphill battle.
The Youth Movement
A goalkeeper tends to age better than a player at any other position, so it's particularly promising that the U.S. has a few younger goalkeepers who are already fairly polished despite being on the younger side. William Yarbrough (OK, so he's not that young considering he just turned 28) has gotten off to a strong start for an otherwise-poor Club Leon side currently sitting dead last in Liga MX, with the goalkeeper currently third in the league in total saves and having kept two clean sheets. That type of form, not to mention a season last year in which he led Liga MX in saves and clean sheets, is why he continues to be in the mix for the national team despite only having three caps to his name.
The duo of Ethan Horvath and Zack Steffen may be the U.S.' best chance at having another set of world class goalkeepers, following in the footsteps of the Keller-Friedel and Guzan-Howard duos. The 21-year-old Horvath signed with Belgian powerhouse Club Brugge in January after two standout seasons with Molde, where despite his youth he established himself on the European stage as a legitimate No. 1 goalkeeper. While Horvath has yet to see the field for his new club, it's just a matter of time before he gets a chance to prove himself. He already earned the trust of former U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who last April tabbed Horvath as one of the team's "biggest hopes for the future," named him to the 23-man roster for the Copa America Centenario, and handed him his first cap in an October friendly against Cuba. While Horvath might be disappointed not to get a call-up for the March qualifiers, his time will come.
Also just 21 years old, Steffen has already had a whirlwind career that has taken him from College Park, Md., to Freiburg, Germany, and back to the U.S. and Columbus, Ohio, in a span of just two years. After starring at the University of Maryland for two seasons, Steffen signed with German side SC Freiburg in December 2014, and after performing well for their reserve side and the U.S. under-20 national team, earned the call-up to the senior team last year as it earned promotion to the Bundesliga. Despite his solid run of form, Steffen did not see the field and decided to return to MLS, signing with Columbus in July. Having earned the starting job with the Crew to start the season, Steffen now has a chance to see regular playing time and fulfill the star potential many believe he has in him.
Not every promising prospect blossoms into a star, and for Sean Johnson and Cody Cropper their window to realize their U.S. No. 1 potential may be closing.
Once a darling of U.S. fans and a player seen as a potential heir to Guzan and Howard, Johnson has fallen down the pecking order. He has been on the periphery of the national scene for years, earning his first cap in 2011 and seemingly always finding himself in the conversation of top American goalkeeping "prospects." And yet he never quite managed to break through and find sustained success at the international level. He'll be 28 this May, and barring a sensational early season performance with his new club, NYCFC, it doesn't seem likely that Johnson will be seeing much—if any—time with the national side.
Another player who has, somewhat randomly, had a long career abroad, Cropper spent the last six seasons in England with Ipswich Town, Southampton, and Milton Keynes Dons before returning to MLS this past summer. Now the starter with the New England Revolution, the 24-year-old will need to effectively reboot his career after logging just nine first-team appearances during his time abroad. With more playing time and a strong international track record already—he has performed well for both the under-20 and under-23 U.S. national teams—Cropper will have an opportunity to figure in the U.S. goalkeeper conversation for the next several years if he can quickly find his form.
When he isn't playing or watching soccer, Doug Sibor enjoys barbecuing, snacking, and exploring all corners of New England. Follow him on Twitter.