HORVATH AT CROSSROADS WITH BRUGGE
Ethan Horvath's time at Club Brugge is now in limbo as the team signed Simon Mignolet earlier in the week, relegating the American netminder to the bench.
I remember interviewing American goalkeeper Kasey Keller about a dozen years ago when he was playing for Borussia Monchengladbach in the Bundesliga. At that time he was not only the German team's number one shot stopper, but the USA's as well. He spoke about the fierce competition between keepers at this time when he and Brad Friedel were battling it out to stay between the sticks for the USA. "The problem with being a goalkeeper," he said, "is that only one can play."
I thought of this on Tuesday night while sitting in the press room at the Jan Breydel Stadium in Brugge, Belgium an hour before the Champions League qualifier was to kick off against Club Brugge and Dinamo Kiev from the Ukraine. American keeper Ethan Horvath had played the first two games of the brand new Belgian Pro League season and came away with two victories, including a clean sheet. The clean sheet came along with a 6-0 thumping of St Truiden on the Friday night. The Colorado native was obviously feeling pretty good about himself and optimistic about the new season ahead.
Then it happened. Two days later his team announced the return of the proverbial son to his home country. Liverpool FC had sold their Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet after six seasons where he appeared for them on 155 occasions but only played a couple of cup games last season.
Granted, Horvath has had his ups and downs with the team. He became known for making outstanding, acrobatic saves but also having moments of madness where he leaked goals that should have never been. He also had a game to forget for the USA in a friendly against Portugal in November 2017 when he went to scoop up a tame shot and somehow let it dribble through his legs, ending up in the back of the net, thus giving the Portuguese an undeserved draw. This game followed a couple of sub-par performances for Club which saw the American lose his starting job.
Keeping faith in himself, he fought his way back and regained his starting job late in the 2018-19 season and was between the sticks for Club when they became Belgian champions. He was also there last season where the team finished runners-up.
Soccer is a funny old game and now the 24-year-old finds himself destined to see little to no action for the rest of the season.
I finished my coffee and headed downstairs as the fans slowly made their way through the turnstiles at this stadium that is shared by both Club and Cercle Brugge, I stopped a few of them to ask about the signing of Simon Mignolet and what the future holds for Horvath.
"I think Ethan has a problem because Mignolet will be the first," said Wim, a grey-haired life-long Club fan from Brussels. "I think he has to find a new club because I think he also wants to be the first goalie but Mignolet is the new choice of the trainer."
Even after reminding him of Mignolet's sub-par performances with Liverpool over the years, he didn't seem fazed but let out a slight laugh and added, "But Brugge has a history with such goalkeepers."
A middle-aged man attending the game with his wife and son was feeling very optimistic about the new signing.
"It's a very good move for Brugge, of course," said Tom who is from Knokke on the Belgian coast. "He was a good keeper in the Premier League even at Liverpool but Alisson is one of the best in the world, so he had no chance."
"I think it will be hard (for Ethan to play) because Mignolet is a really excellent keeper. He drops the ball sometimes but that's the same with every keeper."
I spotted two young men relaxing and enjoying a beer away from the crowds, so I approached them and asked how they felt about the signing of the former Liverpool and Sunderland keeper.
"It was not necessary (to buy Mignolet)," Simon from Gent told me. "Horvath is a very good keeper. It was a nice opportunity to buy him but I don't think it was necessary. I think an extra midfielder would be better to buy than a keeper."
"I have the same opinion as my friend," added Sebastien, also from Gent. "I think it was a really good chance to get a big name player, so I think that's why they really did it and to make a statement to the other teams. They want to be the biggest team in Belgium and it was to show that they are on a good way. But I think that it wasn't necessary to get a goalkeeper, but it was the right moment to sign a player of his level."
"Horvath, he is growing. He is improving. He has a lot of talent but now I think it's not good for his confidence," Simon continued. "They cut off his chances to grow and to develop. But this happens and you can't do anything about it so I think it's best for him to look for other opportunities. He has a lot of potential to really grow but I think he didn't really convince everybody at the club. You could see it among the fans too that many had the same feeling. It's obvious that Mignolet is the better goalkeeper."
Both are fans of the American and would love for him to stay with Club Brugge but feel that it is probably not best for his career.
"It's a five year deal, so it's not gonna be like one year and he's done and Ethan has the chance again. But if you look at it from the other side, it's a good opportunity for Horvath to pick up his level and become better training with Mignolet.
I really like him and a lot of people believe in him; he has good potential and he can achieve a lot of things. Right now, it wouldn't help him to just be the second goalkeeper and then spend his time on the bench. He's too good for that so, in my opinion, the best thing for him is to look for another team where he can play and grow."
Unlike in other bigger leagues, it is not the done thing to have one keeper for league games and one for European nights out; so Horvath's time on the field will most likely be limited to Belgian Cup games. There are not many of them for the top flight teams.
It's a pity that this has happened to him, both of the guys agreed, but this is professional football where you have to live with the consequences of the club's decisions. They felt that this really isn't bad for him because he is young, talented and has a long career ahead of him.
Perhaps now it's crunch time. Both Horvath and the team have a decision to make. Does he want to stay and fight for a job that he'll never achieve solely based on the fact that Liverpool was paid a crazy amount of money for a Belgian team to spend and that the deal is for five years; or does he look around Belgium or further afield for a loan deal?
Soccer is a funny old game and careers can either flourish or die based on one decision. Right now that decision can be summed up with the lyrics of a Stranglers song, "should I stay or should I go."
As an official of Club Brugge told me that evening; "There are still three weeks left to make deals."