For a significant part of the last two decades, the goalkeeper position was the unquestionable strength of the US national team.
Now, as the US ready for a pair of make-or-break World Cup qualifying matches next month, there are real questions about how head coach Bruce Arena will handle the position.
Will he start Tim Howard in the final two CONCACAF Hexagonal matches? Will Brad Guzan get the nod against Panama on October 6 and at Trinidad & Tobago on October 10? Or will Arena continue his rotation policy, with Howard starting against Panama before Guzan gets the nod in the finale in Trinidad?
There’s no obvious choice. Howard is the more proven option, but the longtime No. 1 isn’t in tip-top form with the Colorado Rapids. He gave up a somewhat soft goal to Vancouver on Saturday, and was partially to blame for Marco Ureña’s opener in the United States' 2-0 home loss to Costa Rica earlier this month.
Guzan’s record with Atlanta United has been better, but he hasn’t exactly been tested much since joining the Five Stripes. He’s faced more than three shots on target only once in six games since September 10. He fell flat on that occasion, whiffing badly on a cross ahead of Dom Dwyer's goal and failing to cover the near post on Cyle Larin's header in Atlanta’s 3-3 draw against Orlando on September 16. He did perform well in the national team's 1-1 draw at Honduras following the Costa Rica loss, and certainly can’t be blamed for Romell Quioto’s curler that put Los Catrachos on the board.
If I was Arena, I’d be inclined to pick one ‘keeper for the next two matches, if only to provide a semblance of continuity behind a backline that’s been pretty shaky in recent qualifiers. And if I’m picking one, it’s Howard. The 38-year-old gives me a little more confidence than Guzan in big international matches, and he’s certainly been tested more than his counterpart in their recent MLS runouts.
That said, Howard isn’t that far removed from a significant groin surgery. If he has trouble recovering following the Panama match, Arena will no doubt rotate in Guzan. That’d be fine – at least for now.
But I can’t imagine Arena will want to continue a rotation policy in the World Cup, should the US qualify. The first half of 2018 should develop into a huge competition between Howard and Guzan for the starting job in Russia. Ideally, a clear No. 1 will establish himself with enough runway to earn a solid run of games in the buildup to Russia, playing behind Arena’s preferred backline.