Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
The initial reaction among U.S. Men’s National Team fans to the news of Tim Howard’s current injury was understandable. Shock and fear seemed a normal way to respond to the news that Howard would likely miss this month’s World Cup qualifiers considering Howard has started virtually every important U.S. match since Kasey Keller retired.
Not having Howard to take on Costa Rica and Mexico is certainly a big blow, but the U.S. team is better equipped to deal with Howard’s absence now than it has been for several years. Why? Guzan has gone from perennial back-up to standout starter for Aston Villa, and has spent a season impressing in goal for the Villans. He still hasn’t played all that much in a U.S. uniform in the past two years, but he does have some pretty important national team games on his resume.
From his start in goal in the U.S. team’s important 3-0 Confederations Cup victory against Egypt in 2009, to his play in a difficult 2-2 draw on the road in World Cup qualifying vs. El Salvador that same year, Guzan has provided some strong performances in goal, even if most of them came as many as four years ago.
The encouraging part isn’t just that Guzan has done well for the national team before, but that he did it before he had established himself as a regular English Premier League starter.
In short, Guzan is playing the best soccer of his life and is better-equipped to take on important national team games than he has ever been before.
The U.S. could do much worse than Guzan for a back-up goalkeeper, but that doesn’t mean the Americans aren’t losing something in the tradeoff from Howard. The Everton star has much more experience organizing defenses and leading the current stable of American defenders. He has faced Costa Rica and Mexico several times before, and recorded multiple shutout victories against ‘El Tri’.
Howard’s experience is also vital in helping lead a defense that doesn’t have experience playing together. Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez are all new to the Hexagonal Round of World Cup qualifying. Last month’s loss to Honduras was the first HEX game for each of them.
Guzan has gained his share of experience playing behind an inexperienced defense with Aston Villa, and he isn’t likely to be shy about letting his defenders know where they need to be. That said, he hasn’t played in meaningful matches with the U.S. defense he will likely be taking the field with in qualifying later this month and that lack of familiarity could be an issue in qualifying.
There is little denying the fact that Guzan has been playing very well for Aston Villa, and you will even hear some suggest that Guzan has been in better form than Howard this year. The suggestion is a stretch, but an understandable notion given all the saves Guzan has to make on a regular basis. It is easier to put a highlight reel together when you’re facing tough shots in bunches. That is Guzan’s reality with Aston Villa, but not Howard’s reality on a stronger Everton side.
Howard won’t always be the U.S. starting goalkeeper, and perhaps there was some symbolism in the fact that the first injury of any real significance took place just before his 34th birthday, which he celebrated on Wednesday. But Howard’s injury, and the opportunity it is presenting Guzan isn’t a changing of the guard or a passing of the torch. That time isn’t here just yet.
What Howard’s injury will do is give Guzan a chance to show just how far he has come as a goalkeeper since becoming a full-time starter in England, and an opportunity to show that Guzan is more than capable of being the No. 1 when called upon.