Over the last few years, the position of goalkeeper has been an uncharacteristic weakness for the United States. Having moved so smoothly from Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller through to Tim Howard, it’s quite remarkable to see head coach Jurgen Klinsmann rooting around for an in-form shot-stopper.
Howard’s drop in form post-World Cup 2014 was a hammer blow, and while some celebrated the fact Brad Guzan’s time had come, his 2015-16 season with Aston Villa was among the worst in Premier League history. The team conceded 76 goals—58 of which came with him between the sticks—and at one point, he lost his place to Mark Bunn.
In this form, it became difficult to believe in Guzan; his time as the No. 1 was short. Howard has since moved to the Colorado Rapids and found his feet (to an extent), so he is once again an option, but at 37 years of age, no one’s tricking themselves into believing he’s the future. So who is?
Attentions should be turning to Ethan Horvath sooner rather than later. Howard has understandably been selected as the No. 1 goalkeeper ahead of the USMNT’s crucial Hexagonal qualifier against Mexico on Friday, while Guzan is sat on Middlesbrough’s bench as backup to Victor Valdes. But Horvath is the future, and Klinsmann’s certainly on record as a fan.
"Another big talent on the horizon for us is definitely Ethan Horvath, playing for Molde FK," Klinsmann said in February, per Matt Reed for Soccer By Ives. "It’s wonderful to watch. It’s encouraging because obviously we have Howard and Guzan, but we also need a new younger generation of goalkeepers coming through. Having him play week in, week out in the league in Norway, and especially in the Europa League, is big."
The final word in the above Klinsmann quote is an apt starting point in describing Horvath. He’s rangy, tall and big-bodied, measuring approximately 6'4". The USMNT’s illustrious recent 'keepers have all been big—but not this big.
His arms are long, and when saving shots, they shoot out like pistons in front of him to meet the ball. He pushes shots well clear of danger, to the side or over the top, and he rarely gifts it back into play for someone to mop up. When he punches, he gets good distance on the effort; his strong arms get to the ball first among a cluster of bodies and get rid of it comprehensively.
Despite there being a long way to the ground for Horvath, he gets down fast. His agility impresses. Dealing with low shots is a speciality of his, and he often uses a foot to reach those that are too quick to fully react to. In his USMNT debut against Cuba in October, amid awful, bobbly pitch conditions, he deflected a low shot on to the post with an outstretched toe, preventing his nation from falling behind in the second half.
That save also showcased one of his other major strengths: his reflexes. All top-level goalkeepers should possess quick wits, and Horvath does, often reacting to melees in the box and claiming the ball. Having those long limbs to stick in the way of shots is one thing, but you’ve got to be able to use them—it’s one of the big differences between Thibaut Courtois and, say, Costel Pantilimon.
It's also notable how well Horvath guards his near post. This is another trait you’d expect every top 'keeper to have, but the likes of Valdes—even in his pomp at Barcelona—have proved it’s possible to carry this sort of weakness through a career. The Molde man does give away a lot of corners in pushing near-post efforts behind, but better there than back into the danger zone.
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Molde have played good football, placing an onus on playing out from the back whenever possible. Horvath is an important part of this; while not involved to Manuel Neuer, Claudio Bravo or Marc-Andre ter Stegen levels, he does start some passing moves.
An early grounding in this area has given Horvath confidence on the ball. His short distribution is excellent. He’ll frequently command his centre-backs to split wide to receive a pass, and he’ll move the ball under duress in order to create passing angles.
His longer kicking is OK—not poor but not fantastic. He gets great length and puts the ball into good areas, but the deliveries are by no means pinpoint. This is hardly an issue, though, as 'keepers such as Hugo Lloris have risen to the top despite seemingly being unable to ever find a team-mate when clearing the halfway line.
In addition to his buildup skills, Horvath’s other bonus traits are his quickness off his line and his comfort claiming aerial balls. Those long arms reach up, hands like talons, plucking balls out of the sky when they’re sent into his box. His balance is good, and he moves out smoothly to claim crosses.
He has at times proved to be a little too eager to rush off his line—be it during one-on-one situations or when balls are lofted into his area—but mistakes have been few and far between. In fact, watching the film back on every goal he’s conceded since the beginning of August, most of them have been wonder hits; he is never beaten easily.
This all bodes extremely well for a U.S. side itching to take the next step in its progression. Another solution between the sticks rearing his head is key to future solidity, but if Horvath can offer an extra edge in possession, the team as a whole can slide into a higher gear.