GOLDEN BETWEEN THE PIPES
Over the last 15 years, the goalkeeper position has become what one would describe as an "institution" for the United States. From Tony Meola to Kasey Keller to Brad Friedel, the Red, White & Blue has been well represented in goal at the international level.
The ability of the United States to field an experienced and skilled man in net has given the US National Team the confidence needed to make five consecutive World Cup appearances. It is these same players that have also provoked opportunities for fellow countrymen overseas.
Now, the goalkeeper position is at a crossroads.
With Tony Meola on the verge of retirement, Brad Friedel already retired from international soccer and Kasey Keller, who would be 40 years old in 2010, all likely not to feature in South Africa 2010, the United States could face a dilemma it has not had to worry about over the past two decades: the lack of a veteran, World Cup-tested goalkeeper.
Perhaps it has been taken for granted over time that the United States would have a goalkeeper ready to take over the reins?
Well, I know what you're thinking. 'What about Tim Howard? ' The first choice Everton goalkeeper can be a star; there is no denying his athletic ability.
He has already once won the Goalkeeper of the Year Award in the English Premiership. But in the same amount of time it took win that award, he had a drastic fall in form and nearly fell off the national team radar.
Luckily, Howard is a supreme talent and was able to increase his confidence to the level where he can lead a Premiership club to a successful season. But, could Howard have another swoon in form? It's plausible.
Marcus Hahnemann is an English Premiership-tested goalkeeper at Reading, so can't he be the goalkeeper for the Stars and Stripes? At 34 years old, Hahnemann will be 38 when South Africa 2010 begins.
Goalkeepers tend to age better than field players, but at 38 they do tend to lack the quick movement and reaction time of true world-class goalkeepers. Don't get me wrong; Hahnemann, if not retired, will still be a good goalkeeper, just not one to lead a country deep into a World Cup Tournament.
Who else is there? Adin Brown? Maybe, if he can avoid injuries. Joe Cannon? Solid, but there is a reason why he was never given a full opportunity with the US. Brad Guzan? One night spectacular, the next game not so much. Troy Perkins? Good in MLS, but I believe he'd be overwhelmed at the international level. Quentin Westberg? The jury is still out.
Fortunately, the picture is not as bleak as it appears. It's just that the goalkeepers of tomorrow are not ready today.
We begin in Chicago with the revelation of Major League Soccer this season. When Zach Thornton went down at the end of August, Chicago gave the goalkeeping job to a 24-year old with five professional games to his credit.
The 6'3", 200 pound Matt Pickens has been nothing short of brilliant. The Missouri State University product has provided several highlight reel saves in his short time between the pipes.
Pickens was awarded for his strong performance in September as he won Player of the Month, an amazing feat for someone with his lack of professional experience. Although Pickens been in goal for less than half a season, there is no goalkeeper in American soccer who has made a quicker impact at the professional level.
Onto the west coast as I introduce the latest UCLA goalkeeping product, Brian Perk. The college freshman has taken over the starting goalkeeper job at the perennial college soccer powerhouse.
Perk is a player that rarely gives up a rebound, which has helped him average less than a 1.00 goals against average, excellent for any keeper. US Under-20 National Team coach Thomas Rongen has been impressed enough by the 17-year old Perk that he continues to call him into the Under 20 squad.
Perk is the leading candidate for the backup goalkeeper spot for the Stars and Stripes at next summer's World Youth Championships.
The favorite to start in Canada 2007 plies his trade just outside the nation's capital. Like Perk, he is still an amateur in the college ranks. University of Maryland sophomore Chris Seitz is the top goalkeeping prospect the college ranks since the days of Tony Meola.
Those are high accolades for a college sophomore, but Seitz has earned it. The Terrapin was one of the keys to the 2005 NCAA Championship winning squad that included Columbus Crew rookie Jason Garey, Kaiserslautern prospect Chris Lancos and Heerenveen forward Robbie Rogers.
The reason Seitz is so highly regarded is not because of supreme athletic ability, but because he is the most technically gifted goalkeeper the United States has ever produced at that age.
The composure Seitz provides in net is more than the majority of goalkeepers in Major League Soccer. It is not often that a goalkeeper will turn pro after his sophomore year, but it would surprise no one if this was Seitz's last season in college soccer.
Rongen has made it no secret that Seitz will be the starter at Canada 2007. If he shows the ability in Canada that he has displayed at Maryland, the teenage goalkeeper will have the opportunity to follow in the path of Howard and join one of the world's elite clubs.
Another intriguing prospect is Chris Konopka of Providence College. The 6'5" 210 pound Konopka is one of the largest goalkeepers in American soccer and is an intimidating presence inside the box.
He is scheduled to graduate college in December and the fact that he is eligible for a coveted European passport (through Polish grandparents), Konopka will have the opportunity to ply his trade overseas. Major clubs, including Arsenal, Celta Vigo and Manchester United have already expressed interest in the New Jersey-born goalkeeper.
Perhaps the best prospect of them all has never suited up for a collegiate team or professional club. In fact, he's only 15 years old. A Middleton, Wisconsin native Josh Lambo is what many would describe as a boy in a man's body.
Already over six feet and 200 pounds, Lambo has the size and stature necessary to take it to the next level. Even at 15, Lambo is a key member of the Under-17 National Team. He was one of two goalkeepers chosen by head coach John Hackworth for a month-long camp in South America.
The key for Lambo is that European clubs are already noticing. This past summer, Lambo trained with Everton while the Toffees were in Dallas for preseason training. The teenager had the opportunity to train with fellow American Tim Howard, but unlike the first choice Everton goalkeeper, Lambo will likely make a move to Europe while he's still a teenager.
Lambo will be able to obtain a European passport through his grandfather, who was born in what is modern day Macedonia. However, the Wisconsin native plans to wait until after the Under-17 World Championships next summer before he moves on to a European club.
American fans have little reason to worry. There will certainly be some bumps along the road over the next couple of years, but the future is actually as bright as it has ever been.