NASHVILLE -- Lipscomb University, the US national team's home base in the run-up to the Gold Cup, sits tucked into the shady, verdant nooks of Nashville’s tony Green Hills neighborhood. But on Tuesday, on the frying metal bleachers of its soccer field, the near-high-noon sun threatened to punish the small non-MLS faction of the team unused to a summer schedule.
“Some of the guys play in Europe in a different calendar, so they’re suffering from this heat right now,” said goalkeeper Bill Hamid, as a knot of his teammates huddled afterwards in post-practice cryo pools.
Luckily, both the D.C. United ’keeper and his fellow shiny-pated netminder, Brad Guzan, lathered on the SPF; Guzan, possibly putting in protection reps before his Atlanta United arrival, went heavy on the sunscreen spray. Luckily, too, their scalps weren’t the only things slowly sizzling. Indeed, at training, these two, plus New York City FC’s Sean Johnson, showed the US goalkeeping situation for Gold Cup is cooking with gas.
Every ball that passed between the trio and their coach during drills landed with the dull, satisfying thwack of ball practically suctioning into gloves. Johnson, fresh from a victorious New York Derby, looked particularly nimble as he weaved between cones, no doubt eager to figure back in the national picture after his last call-up, in January 2016.
“The Gold Cup’s an important tournament, and having been a part of it in 2013, [I was] excited to be in the picture for the 40-man roster,” said the 28-year-old of his reaction to head coach Bruce Arena naming him to the preliminary squad earlier this month. “Now that I’ve got my foot back in the door, it’s up to me to put the work in and show that I earned and deserve a spot here.”
Fine-tuning at the club level, he says, has proved major key – where he's shown some improvements while on the ball and has notched four shutouts so far this season. “This is my eighth year so I’ve been around,” he said – but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t worked meticulously with NYCFC goalkeeping coach Rob Vartughian to fine-tune. “He’s helped me be a little more critical and hold myself to a certain standard every single day.”
But beyond Johnson’s promise, Hamid’s return the fold, in particular, should light up his Soccer Twitter fan club. The 26-year-old finished drills, as they say, as cool as you like, finding an early zone. It belied little of the knee, and then groin, injury stretch that sent him home from this year’s January camp and kept him out of much club play until recently.
“A lot of people don’t realize that unfortunately injuries are part of this business. The human body isn’t built to withstand so much pressure and getting beat up on a regular basis, you know?” Hamid said. “Eventually players or athletes are going to get injured and you just have to go through it, let it take its course.”
Despite the dark weeks, though, Hamid said he continued as though he would one day make it back to the national team, keeping in touch regularly throughout the long rehab road. It’s paid off – the silver lining of D.C.’s defensive woes, perhaps, is that Hamid has gotten more opportunities to prove his mettle.
“I felt very delighted, you know?” He said of getting this call-up. “Thankfully I’ve been able to try to stay strong for my team in the back, even though we’re not doing as well as we would like, and now I’m back here.”
With World Cup qualifying continuing, the top goalkeeping slots will most likely stay with Guzan and Tim Howard, who’s currently back with his club, the Colorado Rapids. But now, with the Gold Cup kicking off on Sat., July 8, it’s up to Johnson and Hamid to prove their mettle for supporting roles in an extra-busy upcoming year for the national team.
“It’s going to be a good month, and I’m looking forward to the challenge,” said Johnson.
Hamid, naturally, said he was ready too – but put the intra-team competitive stakes in slightly more stark, pragmatic terms. “We all want that number-one spot, and only one of us can play,” he said. “I’m pushing myself. I’m supporting my teammates and my other goalkeepers – because at the end of the day we are a team – but you have to perform when you’re here.”