World Cup Qualifying
The Ballad of Tim Howard and Brad Guzan
November 16, 2015
PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO—In the American movie classic, Bad Boys II, drug lord Hector Juan Carlos 'Johnny' Tapia has an issue he needs to address: the rats are eating his money.
After learning of a plot point that only Michael Bay could love, Johnny turns to his associate and offers a thought. "Carlos," he says, "this is a stupid f*cking problem to have. But, it is a problem nonetheless."
I thought of this scene the other day, partially because I think about Bad Boys II on a regular basis but also because Jurgen Klinsmann has himself a problem in a similar vein. Tim Howard and Brad Guzan are two exceptional goalkeepers, two of the best in the English Premier League and one of the best national team duos in the world. But, of course, only one can play at a time. This is a problem. A good one, but still a problem.
For now, the United States head coach solved the riddle by alternating them. Before Friday's match against St. Vincent and the Grenadines, he announced that Guzan would start the first World Cup qualifier with Howard getting the nod in the second, Tuesday night's more difficult fixture away at Trinidad and Tobago.
Klinsmann came to the decision on his own.When asked if the coach came to his goalkeepers and said that he was thinking about making the move, Howard laughed. "He didn't say he was thinking about anything," he said. "We had a good conversation. The boss tells you what he wants and you say, 'yessir.' And that's it."
Howard, who will make his 30th World Cup qualifying appearance on Tuesday, has never been in a platoon before but is fine with the situation. "I'm old enough to handle all that stuff," he said. "It's a good dynamic. I think the games are spaced out enough over the course of months and months that it's not a week in, week out, trying to get your rhythm type of thing."
For now, it's a workable system. Both players have shown that they are more than capable of handling the responsibility of being a number one goalkeeper – Howard during the 2010 and 2014 World Cup campaigns, Guzan during Howard's year-long sabbatical – and both deserve to play. If anything, the rotation is a fair way to reward both men and, more importantly, keep them mentally involved. "You want them both to be highly motivated, highly committed—which they are—to their national team, Klinsmann said. "Coming up with a compromise in a certain way to give them each their games, to rotate them, is definitely the best way to go."
The coach went further, arguing that it's not just about the two goalkeepers, either. He hopes that their teamwork can provide some leadership for pool of American players: "When you have an example like that, that one goalkeeper supports the other one, and they are both get their games over time, this is a signal to the entire team."
The rotation might work. Howard's point about the games coming few and far between is well taken. This isn't college football where two platoon quarterbacks shuffle in and out every series, forcing their teammates to adjust quickly. It's international football, which is an already inherently disjointed affair. Having two number ones isn't the worst idea.
Each player, however, does have his strengths and weaknesses. I asked Geoff Cameron for a quick scouting report and he obliged.
On Howard: "When he speaks, it has weight to it. When he says certain things, you listen. To have a guy like that is great."
On Guzan: "I think he's becoming more vocal. Over the last couple games that I've played, he's directing more. He's coming into his own. He's confident. He's becoming the guy that we all know he can be."
The biggest takeaway, according to Cameron? "When a guy can leave and another guy can come in and not miss a beat is a good thing," he said.
Still, the decision to start Howard in the more difficult game indicates something, although exactly what remains to be seen. It could be as little as that Howard has experience in away CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers or it could be a subtle nod from Klinsmann that when the going gets tough, he's going to go with Howard.
One thing is clear: after the win over St. Vincent, Guzan was the first American player out of the locker room. No members of the press asked to speak to the victorious goalie, who walked through the gauntlet unmolested and began happily signing autographs for adoring fans.
A few minutes later, Howard appeared and was immediately assaulted by questions.
His time in the spotlight won't be over any time soon.
Noah Davis is Deputy Editor of American Soccer Now. Follow him on Twitter.