Postcard from Europe: Guzan seizes his chance with Villa
AMSTERDAM — It may seem like old times on the bench again for Aston Villa backup netminder Brad Guzan, but a lot has changed since November.
No longer an unknown entity in the English Premier League, Guzan can now be considered one of those dugout boys good enough to start. A five-week stint standing in for injured starter Shay Given in December made sure of that, and the 27-year-old US international's displays compelled manager Ally McLeish to publicly warn the recovering starter there was competition for his place.
"Up until this point, I hadn't been able to prove myself other than loan to Hull City," Guzan told MLSsoccer.com by phone on Tuesday following practice at Villa's Bodymoor Heath training facility. "It was definitely a big point for me to go in and do well. And any time the manager speaks highly of you, it builds your confidence."
Given was hurt in an early December 1-0 loss to Manchester United, which Guzan finished to rave reviews. Despite having never started a Villans league match, he promptly notched a pair of EPL wins in six tries — including their first at Chelsea in a decade — and backstopped them past FA Cup foes Bristol Rovers as his final stand-in act during the first week of December.
It may be over for the time being, but it was sure fun for Guzan while it lasted.
"Any time you can get a run of games, especially in the Premier League, it's an exciting time," he said. "For me, it was no different. It was an opportunity that obviously I've waited for a long time."
Signed from Chivas USA in the summer of 2008, Guzan's lone league appearance for Villa before Given's injury was in red card relief for Brad Friedel. Midway through his fourth season on their books, he'd worked 23 cup contests for the club and started 16 Championship games during a successful loan to Hull City.
"It's a bit different [to suddenly be the starter]," Guzan said. "You'd sit for a month-and-a-half and then you'd get another cup game, or whatever it may be.
"To get the run of games is to kind of be able to prove my worth — not only to the coaching staff, but also to the fans — and to walk off the field with my head held high after a good showing. It builds trust in your teammates, as well. They know you're going to be able to do the job you're brought in to do."
But even Guzan also had no way to know for sure if he could do the Premier League job. Sure, the Championship moves fast, but goaltending in the EPL means more than a frantic game pace and facing players with top-shelf accuracy.
"The biggest difference between the Championship and the Premier League is not only the quality of players, but the tempo of play," Guzan said. "If a striker gets half a yard, he'll put it in the top corner. They'll wrong-foot you. You have to be on your toes. You're playing against world class strikers week in and week out.
"Mentally, you have to be tuned in and focused for 90-plus minutes. If we take even a minute or two of a break, that could be the difference between a draw and three points."
One aspect of Guzan's time as Villa's starter that did not change was his US national team participation. He has not been called by new boss Jurgen Klinsmann, and says it would be news to him if the coach had been over to see one of his games.
"I haven't spoken to him or anyone on his staff," Guzan said. "My main focus is trying to get first-team football. If I get consistent first-team football with my club, then hopefully the national team will come back in the picture. He's quite clear that he wants players playing, and in the national team you need that."
His Villa status may also be up in the air soon, with a contract set to expire at season's end. While there would surely be suitors for a Guzan freebie, McLeish has made no secret of the fact that he had the club ramp up extension talks while his backup was busy being the starter.
"The conversations I've had with the manager and the goalkeeping coaching staff, they were pleased with the way I played," Guzan said. "They were happy with me helping the team get some results and, really, coming into my own as a goalkeeper."