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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Americans Abroad: Tim Howard (Everton) and Brad Guzan (Aston Villa)

            As we move to the goalkeeper edition of our Americans Abroad series, it is only fitting that a double-feature between America’s 1-2, Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, be done.  In the span of the less than a week, both Howard and Guzan led their respective clubs, Everton and Aston Villa, to victory, each with two crucial saves in penalty kick deciders.  (Everton topped the MLS all-stars last week, and Villa downed Juventus in the Peace Cup Final on Sunday.)  While the United States may not yet be a top-tier football nation, Howard’s and Guzan’s performances confirm that American goalkeepers are, without a doubt, world class.

            We begin with Tim Howard, at the moment, one of the finest goalkeepers in the world.  With both country and club, over the better part of the decade, Howard has established himself as a near-impenetrable force in front of the net.

            With the United States, although not the man with the armband, naturally, Howard is the leader on the pitch, both vocally and physically.  He does an exceptional job at commanding his players from the goal, most notably an American defense that has been admittedly shaky over the years.  It is not difficult to notice that as the team’s most consistent performer since taking the starting job in goal, he has been more responsible for the United States’ recent success than anyone else.  Fittingly, at the Confederations Cup in June, Howard received the Golden Glove Award for the tournament’s top goalkeeper.

            Howard’s most important contributions to American soccer, however, are not necessarily limited to his efforts on the pitch with the national team.  Undoubtedly America’s best export ever, Howard has bolstered the reputation of United States soccer in Europe since his days at Manchester United, and now while at Everton.  In the 2003-04 campaign, Howard’s first year abroad, he was selected as the goalkeeper for the EPL’s best XI.  And now after three years with Everton, the American stopper is the club’s all-time leader in clean sheets.

            As for Howard’s back-up on the national squad, Brad Guzan, while not at the same level as his superior, is nonetheless a rock in the net as well.  In South Africa this summer, it was Guzan who gave Tim Howard the opportunity to exert his brilliance against Spain and Brazil when Guzan’s clean sheet against a high-powered Egyptian offense helped send the United States through to the tournament’s semifinals.

            Guzan, just over a year into his first stint abroad, has experienced similar success as a back-up with the Premier League’s Aston Villa, where he is second choice to fellow American Brad Friedel.  At Villa, however, Guzan is no typical number-two keeper.  One of England’s most competitive non-Big Four clubs, Villa often find themselves busy these days, advancing deep into non-league competitions, including the FA Cup, League Cup, and UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League).  With such frequent competition, the Villans will need Guzan’s services to relieve Friedel quite often, as they did last season.  Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill has praised his keeper’s ability, calling Guzan a “class goalkeeper in the making.”  It will not be long before we see Brad Guzan on first-team duty, if not at Villa, somewhere significant in Europe.

            Due to America’s knack for producing great athletes, rather than great footballers, it makes sense that goalkeepers would be our country’s best asset on the pitch.  No complaints, though.  Howard and Guzan are the primary reason quality opponents haven’t enjoyed goal-fests against a developing United States team through recent years.  And with good things expected from each keeper in Europe this coming season, Americans can be confident that, whether Howard or Guzan, there will be quite competent hands guarding the net come next summer.

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