CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Wednesday, September 5, 2012
One of the sad facts of American soccer is that we don't produce many world class players, despite what seems to be a population and technology advantage.
That is, technology in the sense of top-level training and physiotherapy, with abundant resources ranging from specialized gear to clinics and instructional videos that can be played on handheld devices while getting personal instruction from a physical trainer.
Some people like to put forward the argument that there's a lack of world class players because the best American athletes are moved into the more popular sports such as football and basketball, and soccer suffers as a result. The reality of that situation is different though, because while many of those players could possibly make good soccer players, most of them have the wrong physical tools to excel in the world's game.
If soccer was a sport where size is a talent, then countries of comparable populations to the United States that have soccer as the number one sport would seemingly have physically larger and athletically superior players. This is not the case in any country, where athletically speaking, American players are equal to or even better than in some cases, rendering the argument invalid in reality but famous in fantasy. Some people try to explain away why the U.S. National Team cannot carve out a foothold in the sport, and rather than address developmental and organizational issues that branch into strategy, tactics, and philosophy, they avoid those topics by blaming other sports.
The one position that rarely needs to be fantasy-filled by Kevin Garnett or Dwight Howard (they're long enough, but can they get on the ground and back up fast enough?) though is goalkeeper, where two decades of consistent elite output have satiated the masses' appetite for world class players. At times, there were even three world class players in the pool at once. The comfort brought on by the continuity of success in this one position has been a warm security blanket for American fans, and for good reason; the number of heroic National Team results is steeply in favor of goalkeeper performances rather than field player performances.
As long as we had Tony Meola or Kasey Keller or Brad Friedel, or as long as we currently have Tim Howard, we have a fighting chance on the international stage. But who comes after Howard? The frightening pause that answers that question is cause for concern, and while there may be more options than ever before, the fact that here is not a clear cut heir to the throne is creating a nervous future for U.S. Soccer.
Go back in time to 2008, and it appeared that the ultimate setup was taking place. Brad Guzan completed a move to become Friedel's understudy at Aston Villa, an apprenticeship that National Team fans could only dream of. Guzan was only 23, and already on the way to becoming an elite goalkeeper. Fast forward to 2012, and Guzan has played in 25 league games since then, most of those while on loan to Hull City in the second division.
Guzan realized that he needed to make a change at the beginning of this summer's transfer window, and he elected not to renew his contract with Villa. A month of silence came back, until he inked a new deal with the same team that he had labored on the bench for over the past four seasons. This was clearly a move that showed how little confidence Guzan commands these days, and while still able to be a capable goalkeeper, his position shows little development since he was a prospect in 2008. There is time for that to change, he is still only 27-years old, but now there are others nipping at his heels and knocking him down the pecking order.
Nick Rimando seems to be Jurgen Klinsmann's choice backup goalkeeper to Howard at this point, though his lack of playing time seems to indicate that he's more of a place filler and practice squad keeper than a clear second choice. Though Rimando is clearly a quality player with good instincts and mental fortitude that offsets his comparably small physical stature (again showing that size means little), he will be nearing retirement at about the same time as Howard.
There was hope surrounding Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson, with some people anticipating a Friedel/Keller comparison between the two young men, with 10 or more years of neck and neck competition pushing National Team goalkeeping to new heights. The shattered reality brought on in Nashville showed that while promising, their capabilities are limited by inexperience and are exploitable weaknesses rather than defensive assets. Like Guzan, they have time. That does not solve the problem for right now though.
If Tim Howard is injured in a league game or World Cup Qualifying, who steps into the net for him? Guzan is rusty, Rimando is more or less untested on the international level, and Hamid and Johnson are too inexperienced to be trusted.
Do we turn our gaze to Portugal, where Caleb Patterson-Sewell impressed enough in the second division to be signed by Primeira Liga team Vitoria Setubal as their new starter? Patterson-Sewell is being courted heavily by Australia, so if Klinsmann is going to make a move for the Aussie-American it needs to be soon. The statistics against him are misleading, as his team is very poor and five of the seven goals he has conceded came in one game against Benfica.
Last season in the second division he ranked among the top American goalkeepers of Howard and Friedel, and though it's a given that he is going to take a shelling this season with relegation-bound Vitoria, all of those shots are going to reveal how good he can be. The timing could be right to bring him into the fold, and put him into the race for second.
Is Patterson-Sewell the answer, or should we turn our gaze somewhere else still, perhaps Norway? Steve Clark has done everything right this season for Honefoss, and their 10th place position in the standings is through no fault of his own, as he has seven shut outs and commands a 1.10 goals against average.
Clark could be the best "down the road" possibility for taking over second place right now, though Guzan will have the advantage over him if he gets games at Villa, and Patterson-Sewell may have a short advantage over him if Klinsmann wants to cap tie the potential Socceroo. Those two factors aside, Clark may have the upper hand in the race, with slightly more club experience than Patterson-Sewell and many more games played than Guzan recently. The only thing working against him is that Norway, top to bottom, is not a very good league.
It's unlikely that Klinsmann will test these waters this year, unless the November date in Russia looks appealing for looking at unproven talent. Whatever the case may be, if Howard gets injured in the near future, there's a desolate vacancy behind him and it may be that for the first time in almost 20 years, there's not an elite goalkeeper available for the U.S.
Still, it's not quite time yet to give Chad Johnson or Kevin Durant a call. Even though Johnson in a set piece situation looks fun on paper.