DENVER – Looking around the US national team’s first training session on Monday, it’s fair to say there was an air of expectation as to when the team’s most illustrious stars would emerge from the team bus and make this thing official.
But three of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s biggest names – Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore – never showed. They were in travel limbo following weekend matches in Europe, leaving just 12 field players mostly from Major League Soccer and Mexico to take the first, ginger steps toward the team’s World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica on Friday.
But one of the biggest stars this time around is undoubtedly Brad Guzan, who worked out with his goalkeeping counterparts at the University of Denver just like everything was normal, even if, for the first time in his career, it’s very much not so. The former Chivas USA star is the No. 1 goalkeeper in camp for the first time in his USMNT career due to the recent back injury for incumbent Tim Howard, and for all the magic Dempsey, Bradley or Altidore can conjure, it won’t mean anything if the 28-year-old Guzan doesn’t make good on his first real chance in the spotlight.
“For me, I have to go about my business like it’s every other day,” Guzan told MLSsoccer.com. “You can’t get over-concerned or over-hyped about one individual, although obviously Timmy is a massive player for us. But the rest of us in the goalkeeping group, we have to step up, and I know we will.”
If it sounds like maybe Guzan’s maturation over the years has perhaps come at the expense of his ability for a good quote, there might be some truth to that. But take into account where Guzan is now compared to his role during his younger days, and it’s no surprise that he’s tightened the screws a little bit and, in an interesting twist, speaks with some of the meticulous and deliberate candor of former US head coach Bob Bradley or his son and Guzan’s veteran teammate, Michael.
Howard has traditionally been one of the US’ most candid players because of his personality and his stature with the team. Howard can say pretty much anything on his mind – think back to his comments blasting CONCACAF’s all-Spanish postgame awards ceremony after the 2011 Gold Cup final – because, in large part, he’s Tim Howard. Not much can touch his reputation now.
Guzan, too, has always been a solid personality in camp because his role was actually almost just as sure as Howard’s. He was young, had nothing to lose and was assuredly Howard’s heir apparent, and like a vice president who knows he’s an absolute catastrophe away from actually becoming the face of the nation, there was freedom to be himself when asked about the future. The only opinion people really wanted was from Howard, who has started just about every meaningful game for the US since he took the reins from Kasey Keller in 2007.
But with Howard injured and Guzan’s career in Europe on the rise – he’s finally established himself as the go-to man in net for Aston Villa after roughly four years playing second fiddle, more or less – it’s Guzan’s turn to field the questions about what Klinsmann called a “must-win” game against Costa Rica on Friday. And this version of Guzan – measured, confident and quite aware it’s no fluke he’s the choice to replace Howard – appears to be all business.
“As the game gets closer I’m sure as a goalkeeping group we’ll have some more discussions about the game on Friday, but there’s not too much to be said,” Guzan insisted. “We’re all professionals here, and even if Timmy was here, you have to train like you’re going to play. Because if something happens to him, you have to be ready.”
Guzan is flanked this week in camp by Real Salt Lake veteran Nick Rimando and Chicago Fire youngster Sean Johnson, but there’s no doubt Klinsmann has complete faith Guzan will be the starter. He said as much during a press conference last week in Chicago, and when the media peppered Klinsmann with questions on Monday after the 23-man roster was announced, Guzan’s name never even came up.
A large part of that is because Guzan is clearly the top choice compared to his MLS counterparts, and solid outings during the past month against Reading, Manchester City, Arsenal and West Ham have dispelled any doubts that he’s ready.
And although his last start with this much on the line was during the 2009 Confederations Cup against Egypt and he hasn’t started a World Cup qualifier since 2008, perhaps the last few months of his career will do the talking, even if Guzan’s content to keep his emotions close to the vest in the days leading up to his return to the big stage.
“The experiences that I’ve in the last four months, and even in the last five years being in England, I’ve prepared myself very well for the challenge ahead,” Guzan said. “I feel confident and ready to go.”