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America: Land of Burgers, Big Blocks, and...Keepers?

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America: Land of Burgers, Big Blocks, and...Keepers?
(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Americans know how to do a few things quite well. We can deep-fry the hell out of anything, we can make bigger cars than anybody, and, oh yeah, we produce some fine goalkeeping talent.

While the United States hasn't produced many noteworthy outfield players to date, American keepers have proved that they can hold their own on the world stage.

From Tim Howard's recent performance at the Confederations Cup to Brad Friedel's penalty-stopping saves in the 2002 World Cup, American keepers have played brilliantly on the big stage.

 

The Keepers

The old guard

There are two American keepers who have been mainstays on the international scene. Both men have continued playing at an elite level as they near their 40th birthdays. I'm talking, of course, about Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller.

Friedel made a name for himself with some spectacular performances with Blackburn Rovers, helping the club gain promotion to the Premier League during the 2000-2001 season.

His athletic performances helped Blackburn capture the 2002 League Cup, and he earned a prestigious individual honor when his 15 clean sheets saw him named to the 2002-2003 Premiership Starting XI.

Some of Friedel's most memorable moments came in a US shirt during the 2002 World Cup. He was a brick wall between the posts, becoming the first keeper to stop two penalties in regulation in a World Cup since 1974.

These amazing performances inspired the Americans to a surprising quarterfinal finish, beaten by a lone Michael Ballack goal.

After Friedel announced his international retirement, the reins were handed back to the elder statesman Keller.

Keller began his international career in 1990 against Colombia, and in his 17 years in a US shirt, produced some very memorable performances.

Take a look at that link. It's highlights of the US' 1-0 victory over Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup. Thanks to Keller's 10 saves, the US pulled off a massive upset that drew admiration from the Brazilian legend Romario.

"That is the best performance by a goalkeeper I have ever seen," said the impressed striker.

In more recent seasons, Keller has been a key part of Fulham's success in England. Keller was in net for the final stretch of matches at the end of the 2007-2008 campaign, when Fulham miraculously pulled themselves out of the relegation zone thanks in no small part to the large American contingent on their books.

After that bit of magic with Fulham, Keller returned to action in the US, signing with the expansion club Seattle Sounders FC.

How did he begin his time with his newest club? By setting a record for the longest scoreless streak to start an MLS season, keeping opponents out of the net for 457 minutes.

As Friedel and Keller watch their careers wind down, they've handed over goalkeeping duties to the next generation of very capable American keepers.

The current keepers

The brightest star in the American goalkeeping stable currently is Tim Howard. He's been superb for Everton, and was recently awarded the Golden Glove at the 2009 Confederations Cup.

Keep in mind that he won this award in a tournament that featured both Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon, two of the very best in the world.

Brad Guzan is another young keeper making a name for himself. In the third match of the group stages of the Confederations Cup, he kept a clean sheet against Egypt when surrendering just a single goal would have sent the US home. Currently, he's learning under Brad Friedel at Aston Villa.

The sheer depth of the US goalkeeping pool is a point of pride. Marcus Hahnemann played a key role in helping Reading gain promotion to the EPL, and then kept 13 clean sheets as they finished one spot shy of European qualification in the very next season.

Despite Hahnemann's talents, he's only been capped six times thanks to a logjam of talent ahead of him on the depth chart.

Several MLS keepers find themselves in a situation similar to Hahnemann. Matt Reis, Kevin Hartmann and Joe Cannon are just a few of the talented MLS-based goalkeepers that have just a handful of caps combined. There are plenty of countries that would love to have those keepers as citizens.

The Cause

What athletic skills are required of a great keeper?

Perhaps most crucial of all is the need for a quick first step. A good keeper doesn't have to be able to beat you in a 100-meter dash, but they need to win the first 10.

A quick first step enables a keeper to rush off the line and quickly cut down the angle on an opposing striker.

The best keepers also have impeccable hand/foot-eye coordination. They need this keen sense of body awareness to combat the inevitable bad bounce or deflection.

Case in point: Gianluigi Buffon stonewalling Adrian Mutu with his leg during Euro 2008. That's one of the finest saves you'll ever see, and it's all down to Buffon's eyes being completely in sync with the rest of his body.

A strong lower-body is also a must for a world-class keeper. Strong calves and thighs can propel a keeper to make a save that might be out of reach for a lesser athlete.

Lastly, keepers must have excellent ball skills as well. Playing keeper isn't all about making saves and punting the ball as far down the pitch as possible. Keepers have to be good with their feet, trapping passes from their defenders and being smart distributors.

Famed Mexican keeper Jorge Campos actually started his career with Pumas as a striker, scoring 35 goals for the club. Paraguayan legend Jose Luis Chilavert often took set pieces, as did the Brazilian Rogerio Ceni.

How does a keeper develop such a unique skill set?

Most of the world's elite athletes use cross-training techniques as part of their normal workout regimens because of the many benefits they can provide.

While cross-training won't give an athlete any sport-specific benefits, but it can improve cardiovascular health and help build muscle.

In a sense, keepers, especially American keepers, are the world's ultimate cross-trainers.

Most American athletes don't grow up playing just a single sport, and things are no different for keepers.

Brad Friedel was offered a chance to walk on to the basketball team at UCLA. Tim Howard also excelled on the basketball court as a youngster. Tony Meola went to school on a soccer/baseball dual scholarship.

Playing all of these different sports helps cultivate the skills necessary to become a great keeper.

Baseball is the ultimate test of hand-eye coordination, as you have to try to hit a small ball travelling in excess of 85 miles per hour with a small stick.

Leaping and sprinting around a basketball court will help hone a keeper's quick first step and develop the requisite leg strength.

Playing American football can prepare a keeper to throw their body into a crowd of players during a set piece near the box.

These skills are being developed at a very young age, and it's not even in a formal setting with trainers and goalkeeping coaches.

This development happens as a normal part of a young American athlete's life and it pays huge dividends once an athlete decides to make the commitment to the beautiful game.

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