Last fall, after sitting on the bench for the first two games of the English Premier League season, Brad Guzan replaced Irish international Shay Given in the starting lineup for Aston Villa. It was a good day for United States men’s national team fans as they got to see an American starting in what is often touted as the “best league in the world.”
As the season wore on, Guzan put in impressive performance after impressive performance, never giving up the starting spot and finishing the season as Villa’s Player of the Year. Considering he had been released by the club only 11 months earlier (before being re-signed), it had to be a dream season for the American keeper.
But that outstanding season with Villa also presented a challenge to the natural order of things in the USMNT camp. Tim Howard, who had been the backbone of the U.S. defense since Kasey Keller moved on after the 2006 World Cup, was now under direct pressure for the No. 1 spot in the U.S. net.
Like any player, Tim Howard has had his share of bad moments for both club and country. His mistake in the 2004 Champions League against Porto still haunts Manchester United fans and that set-piece vulnerability has also been seen in recent USMNT games against Guatemala and Jamaica in World Cup qualifying.
In the 2010 World Cup, neither of Ghana’s goals that beat the United States in the Round of 16 were unstoppable and Howard’s relatively weak performance against Costa Rica earlier this month had some USMNT fans calling for Howard to lose his place.
At the same time, Howard has been a major part of the U.S.’s most important wins over the past few years. In 2012, Howard was key in the U.S.’s historic wins over Mexico at the Azteca and Italy in Genoa. He was also unbeatable against Spain in the Confederations Cup in 2009.
Howard has the type of experience and leadership that the U.S., with a back line that changes each and every game, desperately needs. Additionally, he showed against Mexico last month how well he can rebound from a sub-par game.
On the other side of the equation is Guzan, who has been tremendous over the past year for club and country. Besides his 2012-13 Player of the Year performances, Guzan was lights out last weekend against Norwich City. Guzan earned the shutout for Villa en route to their 1-0 win by both stopping a penalty and making a Matrix-like save late in the match to preserve the victory.
Guzan has also proved he can get it done for the USMNT when it counts. In the March qualifiers against Costa Rica and away to Mexico, Guzan was forced into action when Howard was out due to a broken back. Guzan earned two shutouts while the U.S. earned four vital points and turned around its World Cup qualifying campaign.
On pure ability, it would be very tough to argue that Guzan is not the better keeper right now. Adding in intangibles like experience and leadership, Howard has the edge.
In 2006, it was obvious that Howard was the future with Keller ending the near of his career. The same is now true with Guzan and Howard. Once the 2014 World Cup is over, Guzan will be the keeper for the next World Cup cycle and Howard’s days with the team will be over.
The big question for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is whether or not it’s worth risking making the switch this cycle with the World Cup only nine months away.
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