Whatever tempests raged at other positions, the US national team have never lacked for top class goalkeepers since exploding back onto the world stage at the 1990 World Cup.
The handoff from one regime to the next has been seamless for more than two decades. From Tony Meola to Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller to Tim Howard, it’s fair to say the US have been relatively spoiled on this front since 1990.
The pipeline, though, seems to be drying somewhat, at least in ready first-team 'keepers. US national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann is currently rotating Howard and Brad Guzan, and there are a horde of unproven young 'keepers jockeying for position behind those two.
So taking Guzan and Howard out of the equation, who’s next? I have some ideas.
My grading rubric here on the top 10 young goalkeepers (25 and under is, in my estimation, a fair benchmark to set) skewed heavily toward future prospects. I’ve seen each of these 'keepers play — some more than others — and each rating takes into account how I view their ability to develop into top USMNT 'keepers. That comes from their maturation over their US youth national team careers plus their athletic and mental bonafides.
Projections aren’t easy. But these 10 keepers all have a chance to break into a USMNT goalkeeper race that suddenly looks as wide open as it ever has.
10. Kevin Silva, UCLA (18 years old)
There are certainly worse eventualities than getting your training under USMNT goalkeeping legend Brad Friedel. After a standout career at academy pro factory PDA in New Jersey, that’s Kevin Silva right now. The U-19 'keeper is currently developing at the college home of guys like Matt Reis and Nick Rimando, and he’s getting his national team instruction in bursts from Friedel, who began his work with the U-19 MNT earlier this year. Silva emerged as a consistent starter in the last U-17 MNT cycle, and his quality instincts make him one to watch. He’s not the best organizer in the pool, but give him time and Silva will almost certainly become a professional mainstay.
9. Will Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund (18 years old)
Yes, there’s more than one Pulisic at BVB, and yes, they’re related. Will is Christian’s cousin, and while they hail from different states (Will is from Virginia, Christian from Pennsylvania), they made their mark together in the vaunted 2013-15 U-17 MNT cycle. Will recently made the move to Germany not far behind Christian, and he’s now in their youth setup attempting to break through. Will announced he would only be there for the 2016-17 season and join Duke University in 2017, but don’t sleep on the 18-year-old. He started for the US in the 2015 U-17 World Cup, and he has some of the best hands in the goalkeeper pool. He might not be the most athletic, but he certainly has Christian’s soccer smarts. Must run in the extended family.
8. Cody Cropper, New England Revolution (23 years old)
Cropper’s journey in Europe was a difficult one after he failed to latch on in England after club stints with Southampton and MK Dons. In the end he only got nine first-team appearances before returning to the US to join the Revolution this year. Cropper was once the most promising 'keeper in the pool after earning starting duties for the 2013 U-20 World Cup, but his shaky club status dropped him to third on the depth chart for U-23 Olympic qualifying behind Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath. Cropper is a tremendous shot-stopper, but he has a tendency of making gaffes and needs to work on his consistency. If he can revive his career in New England, he stands to gain more than any player in the pool.
7. Jon Kempin, Sporting Kansas City (23 years old)
Kempin had his breakout at the inaugural 2014 MLS Homegrown Game, where he helped the MLS side post a shutout and earned the game’s MVP trophy. Since then, Kempin, 23, has gotten 12 appearances with the Sporting KC senior side and been on a handful of loans, including one under SKC 'keeper legend Jimmy Nielsen at the OKC Energy. Kempin isn’t the quickest to ground, but the next time you see him play, watch his angles. He rarely makes a mistake on positioning, and he’s an absolute beast in penalties. He’ll have an uphill slog to get more first-team minutes, but judging by the commitment SKC has been to giving him loans, that time might not be as far off as it seems for the Kansas native.
6. Tyler Miller, Seattle Sounders (23 years old)
On the eve of U-23 Olympic qualifying earlier this year, Zack Steffen suffered an injury on club duty. When faced with calling in a replacement, coach Andi Herzog looked to Tyler Miller. And there’s a reason for that. Miller, who split time with Charlie Lyon on Sounders 2 in the USL this year, showed his promise earlier this year when he saved the Sounders’ bacon in a penalty shootout win over Real Salt Lake in the US Open Cup. Miller had eight saves in the game and knocked out two penalties to hand the Sounders the victory. Miller is a big guy at 6-foot-4, and there isn’t an inch of the net he can’t cover. He needs to work on his aerial bonafides — he’s susceptible on corners and free kicks — but all of the foundations are there for Miller to one day supplant Stefan Frei for the Sounders. And maybe go a step further with the national team, too.
5. Justin Vom Steeg, Fortuna Dusseldorf (19 years old)
Sons of coaches tend to have a higher level of field smarts than the rest. Growing up around the game at a technical level in your own home tends to rub off over the years. That’s why it’s been so unsurprising to see Justin Vom Steeg’s rise. Vom Steeg’s dad is Tim, the longtime coach of SoCal power program UC Santa Barbara. Vom Steeg had an incredibly productive freshman campaign at UCSB in 2015 before jumping at a pro opportunity in the 2. Bundesliga last summer.
It was a deserved chance, because Vom Steeg might be the best keeper in the 2017 U-20 World Cup pool. Time spent in Germany should only refine his fire. One look at Vom Steeg and you’ll see at least part of what the hype’s about. Vom Steeg stands a hearty 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, and he moves well between the posts. Vom Steeg is a fine shot-stopper and defensive organizer, and he’ll stake his professional career on that. The test is whether he can round out his game and better develop his reactions. If that happens, he’ll be as complete of a 'keeper as you’ll want.
4. J.T. Marcinkowski, Georgetown University (19 years old)
The San Jose Earthquakes haven’t been all that prolific on the Homegrown front. Double that up with the historic lack of Homegrown goalkeeper signings in MLS as a whole (there have only been nine in seven years), and J.T. Marcinkowski looks like a bit of a unicorn. He’s probably the jewel of the Earthquakes academy alumni currently spread out in college soccer, and he’s definitely the best keeper currently plying his trade in the college game (which is still a fine development tool for 'keepers).
Marcinkowski probably doesn’t get as much pub as he deserves because he doesn’t have prototypical size. He isn’t particularly tall at 6-foot-1, and he doesn’t cut an imposing figure on the touch line as attacks roll forward. But feel free to start pulling out all the Nick Rimando comparisons you like. Marcinkowski, who’s in this U-20 MNT pool for the 2017 World Cup, is an atomic cat off his line and basically unbeatable at the college level in 1-on-1s. He’ll have to answer for his lack of height at every level, and it might ward some off, but his talent ceiling is up there with the comparably aged Steffen and Horvath.
3. Zack Steffen, Columbus Crew SC (21 years old)
Zach Steffen’s return from a short stay at recently promoted Bundesliga club Freiburg was a bit of a surprise. While the former Maryland backstop had little chance of cracking the first team any time soon — he was slated as the No. 3 to start the year — it was likely he’d get more reserve league experience and continue to work under a quality goalkeeping staff. Instead, Steffen opted to return home, which was certainly to Columbus’ gain. Steffen found a home at a club that likes to play out of the back and actively use its goalkeepers' distributive ability.
That’s good news for Steffen, who’s probably the best distributor out of the back in this entire pool. He has plush feet and good vision and tends to look for those quick restarts in the mold of Tim Howard. It’s almost easy to forget that before Horvath’s playing time spiked at Molde (which precipitated his move ahead of Steffen on the depth chart for U-23 Olympic qualifying), Steffen was Tab Ramos’ first choice at the 2015 U-20 World Cup. And Steffen was easily the best US player of the tournament, punctuated by a penalty save to push the US into the quarterfinals. Steffen has size at 6-foot-3 and speed to boot. If he can snag first team club minutes, look out.
2. Bill Hamid, D.C. United (25 years old)
Bill Hamid is the elder statesman of this group. At 25 he just sneaks in under our (admittedly arbitrary) age threshold to snag the No. 2 spot. If it seems like Hamid has been hovering around this area for a while, it’s because his career as a D.C. United Homegrown started so early. He’s had more than 150 appearances for his hometown club, and that’s given him more pro experience than any 25-year-old American keeper in history. So far, anyway.
Hamid could’ve been No. 1 here had he not missed half a year with a torn ligament in his knee. He seemed poised to finally crack into a regular rotation spot with the USMNT, but that progress was put on hold. Hamid’s back now for D.C. United, but in the process the door opened for our No. 1, and whether he can pry it open again is a matter of some conjecture. Hamid is easily the most athletically prodigious talent on this list. He can get to balls nobody else in the entire 'keeper pool can, and his reactions are frankly otherworldly. His problem has always been in his seeming tendency to switch off at inopportune times and stumble into a blunder or two. But what he lacks in polish (those mistakes are still there, but they’re dwindling in frequency) he makes up for in net coverage. His ceiling remains high.
1. Ethan Horvath, Molde (21 years old)
For anyone who watched Ethan Horvath come up through the US youth national team ladder (he’s played on every level from the U-14s on up), his steady debut in the senior team’s 2-0 win over Cuba last week wasn’t much of a surprise. Horvath’s played in some massive youth games over the years, including the two-game U-23 playoff against Colombia for the right to go to the 2016 Olympics (the US did not win). And he was named to a Europa League team of the week before his 21st birthday with his Norwegian club Molde in 2015.
Horvath’s career has been tied to a rocket for some time now, and there’s probably no young 'keeper in the pool with a clearer inside track to taking over between the pipes for a big game. Horvath’s strength is in his organizational capacity. He isn’t the quickest keeper from post to post, but watch him run a game from the back and the lanky 6-foot-4 field general simply takes over. If he can keep this up, he’ll be starting more than just friendlies.