US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has two proven Premier League goalkeepers at his disposal in Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, and that has left him with a selection dilemma heading into the start of their 2018 World Cup qualification campaign.
Howard, 36, spent eight years as the USA’s No. 1 until taking a year-long sabbatical from the international game – with Klinsmann’s blessing – following the 2014 World Cup, where he produced a tournament record 15 saves in the 2-1 round of 16 defeat to Belgium.
In his absence, long-time understudy Guzan filled in as interim starter and enjoyed an impressive CONACAF Gold Cup campaign in the summer, despite the team’s disappointing fourth-place finish, as he won the Golden Glove Award for the tournament’s best goalkeeper.
Howard subsequently returned to the fold ahead of October’s CONCACAF Cup playoff against Mexico, but his Aston Villa counterpart’s previous performances saw him retain his place between the posts for the 3-2 extra time defeat in Pasadena, California.
Nevertheless, the 1-0 friendly loss to Costa Rica three days later marked the return of the Everton stopper to the line-up, following which Klinsmann indicated that he planned to rotate the pair before deciding on a No. 1 for next summer’s Centennial Copa America.
"We have two exceptional, international-calibre goalkeepers,” the German told the likes of Fox Soccer following the Costa Rica game. “We need both of them on board. That's what I told them.
“Going forward, they will probably rotate. There will then come a decision — when we play Copa America or the Gold Cup or whatever comes up then — where one starts over the other."
Now preparing for their first 2018 World Cup qualifier against Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in St. Louis on Friday, both keepers are currently in the dark about their starting prospects for the match, but fans and the media alike have their own ideas over who deserves to be in goal.
With Howard set to turn 37 next March, Guzan has been seen as the likeliest starter for Russia 2018 for some time now, but his 105-times capped teammate has continued to reiterate that he plans to be the USA’s first-choice for a third straight World Cup.
The New Jersey native, who took over starting duties from Kasey Keller following the 2006 tournament, remains a popular figure with US supporters thanks to his past heroics, but his relationship with Everton fans is somewhat less stable due to a noticeable decline in form since last season.
Guzan, who has earned 40 international caps since his debut in 2006, has been through his own struggles at the club level in 2015, having been dropped from Villa’s line-up during last term’s run-in after seeing goal-gifting errors creep into his game, but he has also produced some superb performances for both the US and the claret and blues in the meantime.
Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Manchester City saw the 31-year-old pull off a stellar display to help end his side’s seven-game Premier League losing streak, as the second-half save he made with his face to keep out Raheem Sterling’s close-range header set social media alight.
New manager Remi Garde, who was overseeing his first match in charge, was even left astounded, telling the club’s official website after the match: “I will ask Tony Parks if that was in the training session!”
|2015-16 Premier League||Team||Goals Conceded||Clean Sheets||Saves||Save %||Cross Claim Success||Total Keeper Sweepers||Sweeping Accuracy||Goal Kick Accuracy||Appearances||Mins Played|
|Brad Guzan||Aston Villa||20||2||39||73%||96%||12||83%||50%||12||1,080|
Nevertheless, despite his performance against the league leaders, Guzan still trails behind Howard in statistical terms this season, having conceded more goals and kept fewer clean sheets in his 12 top-flight appearances, while also recording a worse save percentage than his international teammate.
The Everton veteran has also proved more reliable on crosses and when coming out of his goal to sweep up behind his defence and clear the ball, while his distribution is also superior to the Villa man's, despite receiving some criticism in that area of late.
Of course, the numbers can be misleading without context – as with most statistics, but whether Guzan’s would be better behind Everton’s defence instead of Villa’s is open for debate.
Klinsmann, meanwhile, will presumably make a switch between Friday night’s opening qualifier and the trip to Trinidad & Tobago the following week, but with the second match posing a much tougher proposition than the Saint Vincent and the Grenadines game, whoever he opts to start in Port of Spain could be somewhat revealing.
As discreetly frustrated as they may be by the uncertainly, though, neither keeper seems too fazed about having to share duties for the time being.
"Part of being a goalkeeper is that everyone is competing for one spot on the field," Guzan told ESPN FC after joining up with the US squad this week. "You get used to it. You need to be pushing each other."
Added Howard: "Nothing has changed for me or for Brad. We try to do our best with our clubs, and Jurgen will make his decision based on a number of different factors. But it's not something I lose sleep over."
The current fight for the No. 1 spot will not last as long as the one between Keller and Brad Friedel that ran for almost a decade, but while much could change over the coming months, it looks it could end up proving just as competitive.
Howard's experience on the international stage and superior Premier League stats this season suggest that he might be the better option for now, but with Klinsmann needing to think of the future, one can make a decent argument for the younger Guzan, too – especially after witnessing some of the displays he produced during the summer.
Regardless, with emerging options like D.C. United’s Bill Hamid, Molde’s Ethan Horvath and Freiburg’s Zack Steffen also entering the mix, there could be a few more similar battles even once the Premier League duo are out of the picture.