Brad Guzan experienced something unfamiliar on Friday night.
It wasn’t the driving snow or the lack of visibility that almost caused the abandonment of the USA’s World Cup qualifier with Costa Rica.
It wasn’t the feeling of starting a qualifying game for his country for the first time in three years.
It was the scoreline. Guzan kept a clean sheet.
The USA’s 1-0 win not only got their bid to make next summer’s World Cup in Brazil going, it was the first time Guzan had not let a goal in since December 8 2012—nearly four long months ago.
You won’t hear the man from Chicago complain though.
Guzan has no time for finger pointing or passing of the buck.
He is too busy enjoying himself. Despite all the struggles with Aston Villa in the English Premier League; despite all the goals.
While defences around him may have disintegrated, Guzan’s stature has grown.
For Guzan, practise is definitely making perfect.
This season in the EPL has been a horror show for Villa.
The team is desperately struggling to avoid being relegated for the first time over a quarter of a century with Paul Lambert—the team’s fourth manager in the last two years—trying to guide his inexperienced side to safety, seemingly against all odds.
He has discovered a banker in Guzan, even though playing behind the worse defence in the league has been a challenge.
At times it’s as though Guzan has been asked to kill a howling gale with a cocktail umbrella.
Lambert is in no doubt about his keeper’s value telling the Daily Express: "Brad has been exceptional. I would not swap him for anyone. He has been colossal for this club.”
Guzan is the busiest goalkeeper in the Premier League and has been beaten 52 times. It makes you wonder where the club would be without him. Cut adrift at the bottom probably.
So commendable has the American been, however, if Villa do drop out of the top flight you feel there will not be a shortage of potential clubs keen to keep Guzan among the elite. Top-notch keepers are hard to find after all.
That Guzan can now start to be considered in that bracket represents a significant rise in his fortunes.
Less than a year ago his career was in limbo. Villa had let his contract run down and Guzan was facing the exit. Yet another fork in the road lay ahead. For Guzan, it must have felt like someone had dropped the cutlery draw.
His first four years at Villa Park were spent behind, first, compatriot Brad Friedel and, then, Shay Given, with Guzan having to be content with his role as a domestic cup and European group-game specialist.
Guzan made the most of that though and it was a cup tie that first got people seriously talking about his potential and his claims to be a serious contender for the No. 1 jersey.
He saved four penalties in Villa’s win at Sunderland in the last 16 of the League Cup in October 2009 (one in normal time and three more in the eventual shoot-out) as Villa made it through to the final at Wembley. Sadly for Guzan, he had to watch as Friedel took his place in the defeat to Manchester United.
A three-month loan spell with Hull came the following season—a move that Villa was happy to subsequently extend for most of the rest of that campaign.
The departure of both Martin O’Neill and Friedel did not improve Guzan’s prospects either. New boss Alex McLeish made Given his first signing when he took over meaning another spell on the bench beckoned for Guzan.
A hamstring injury to Given in December 2011 gave Guzan another chance and, with Given out for a month, the American had an opportunity for run in the side.
The return of Given again curtailed Guzan’s fun and with Villa seemingly content to let him leave for free, Guzan was all set on the next phase of his career.
Lambert, though, made sure that next phase was still with Villa. With a change of manager, Guzan was persuaded to sign on again and, although Given played the first two matches of the current season, it wasn’t long before Guzan was back in the action.
Errors cost Given his place and Guzan was in again. He has taken his chance too. Ever since his excellent performance as Villa won their first points of the season at Newcastle, he has not looked back.
Guzan is aware his manager has enough on his plate just now, without giving him an extra concern about his goalkeeper’s standards dropping, telling the Birmingham Mail:
“Goalkeeping is not about mastering it and now you are the best. You have to be willing to put the work in and continue to fight."
Guzan will need every ounce of that sort of spirit as he embarks on a vital run of eight games with Villa’s Premier League destiny, almost literally, in his hands.
It is not just his club that Guzan is keen to sort out. Firmly established as the No. 1 there, he has his eyes on replacing Tim Howard, permanently, in goal for his country.
His 21 caps have taken the best part of seven years to accrue and, as unfortunate as Howard’s back injury is, Guzan is likely to have a mini-run in the USA team.
He can expect a tougher time in Mexico City on Tuesday and, even if Howard makes it back in time for the summer friendlies with Belgium and Germany, he may find Guzan a difficult man to shift.
Just like keeping a clean sheet, playing for his nation is likely to become less and less unfamiliar.