Goalkeeping is a zero-sum game. The ball either goes in or it doesn’t, and according to how often that happens, or doesn’t, you either start or you don’t. You can squeeze an extra midfielder or forward into your lineup, should the talent at hand mandate it. But only one man can use his hands, even if you have two who are exceedingly good with them. All of which is to say that long-time United States men’s national team backup goalie Brad Guzan has had to be endlessly patient. But then patience has always served him well.
Indeed, the last impatient, though justifiable, thing the 29-year-old Aston Villa goalkeeper ever did in his career was leave college after his sophomore year. He left the University of South Carolina as an All-American and a Generation adidas signee drafted second overall by Chivas USA of Major League Soccer in 2005.
From there on out, he played the waiting game, biding his time until just the right opportunities came along. Like when Aston Villa came knocking in January 2008. Guzan wasn’t granted a work permit. So rather than seek out another chance, he waited until the summer and tried again, with the necessary paperwork getting approved this time around, clearing the way for him to go to Birmingham and play in the Barclays Premier League after all.
For four years Guzan waited as the hugely experienced Brad Friedel, his ageless countryman, and then Shay Given started ahead of him, thrice going on loan to Hull City down in the Championship. He watched, and learned. And then his contract came up ahead of the 2012-13 season.
It seemed certain that he would leave. Manager Alex McLeish was on his way out and Guzan was a free agent. “Technically I was out of contract but we’d always been in contact and speaking about the possibility of coming back or what might happen with the new manager,” he recalls to FOX Soccer. “We kind of had an understanding that before anything was done on their end or on my end we’d have one last conversation. At the same time, I didn’t know if I was going to come back or not.”
When Paul Lambert was appointed, Guzan spoke to him on the phone. Then he flew to England to meet with him face to face. “Basically, if I was to come back I just wanted a fair shake at things,” says Guzan. “Because the previous few years I didn’t think I was given a fair chance and I just wanted a fair chance to give it a go and see if I could make it.”
Lambert convinced Guzan, who says he had options elsewhere in England and in the rest of continental Europe. He re-signed, a decision questioned by many. “I still felt like I had something to give Aston Villa, that I had more to offer to the club,” says Guzan. “It’s gone okay so far.”
That it has. He did indeed get a fair shake — a fair chance. And he did have something to give. Pushing Given out of the lineup, Guzan starred on a team that sunk into a relegation battle it would survive and was named the team’s player of the year by its fans.
His decisions, his patience, were vindicated and began paying off, even if Guzan couldn’t quite enjoy his success as it came at the expense of his side. He’d gained acclaim from all the shots he stopped, the tall pile of crucial saves he stacked up. But the shots were the product of the rest of his team getting overrun.
“As a goalkeeper you’d rather have a quiet day at the office,” says Guzan. “You’d rather have to make only one or two saves. Yes, I felt confident and I was happy to be playing but at the same time it’s not just about how you perform individually. It’s about how the team does and for me it was definitely frustrating. It’s an environment you don’t want to be in when you’re fighting relegation.”
His breakout at the club level, which he has carried through to the ongoing season, also put Guzan more prominently in the goalkeeper discussion for the United States men’s national team. He had been a backup to Tim Howard since 2006. And during that time, there was no arguing with that pecking order, Guzan freely admits, even if he quietly amassed 26 caps. “When I first joined in with the national team I was still in the MLS and Tim was in Europe,” he says. “And then when I moved to England, when I came to Villa, I wasn’t playing consistently for four years. I wasn’t as sharp as I am now; I hadn’t gone through those experiences to make me the goalkeeper I am now.”
Now, though, Guzan is a serious competitor. As USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann put it in October: “With the goalkeepers, we have one of the best situations in the world.” So it proved in March, when Howard was injured for the crucial World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico, from which the US gutted out a win and a draw, respectively, without conceding a goal. Guzan excelled, and when Howard had a rare off-day in the return game with Costa Rica in September, some openly wondered if his backup ought to take his job against Mexico four days later.
Guzan concedes that it was hard to return to the bench after garnering rave reviews back in March. “I don’t think you ever accept it,” he says. “There’s always disappointment. Even when 99 percent of the time you’re going to be the number two, there’s always disappointment. You can’t be satisfied with being a backup. But at the end of the day you have to be man enough and mature enough to say, ‘Okay, that was the decision.’ And you have to get on with it.”
It’s tricky terrain, this. In a direct competition for a position, it’s hard to claim that you should play without implicitly criticizing both the incumbent and the manager. And that’s not Guzan. “At the end of the day, the manager makes the decision,” says Guzan. “And when the guy in front of you is playing well, it’s hard to go knocking on his door saying that you think you should be playing.”
What’s more, Guzan and Howard have grown to be friends. “We’ve got a really good relationship, both on and off the pitch,” says Guzan. “That’s what pushes each other. You need that because he knows that I want to play — it’s no secret I want to play — but at the same time I know that he’s one of the top goalkeepers around. His track record speaks for itself. For us it’s important to push each other and it’s important for me to get him better and I know he makes me better.”
Really, there’s nothing to be done but wait. “I think I proved in March that I am capable of playing international football and being counted on and helping the guys get good results,” Guzan says. “I think I’m definitely playing some of the best football that I’ve played in my career. I feel sharp, I feel ready.”
The payoff may yet come. Howard is three months from his 35th birthday. Guzan doesn’t turn 30 until Sept. 9, 2014. And the crop of promising you goalies — Bill Hamid, Sean Johnson et al — are still several years from being ready to step in.