MEXICO CITY — For the longest time, Brad Guzan has carried that No. 2 label with him. And for goalkeepers, that can be a hard one to shake off.
A backup goalkeeper for several years at Aston Villa and on the US squad, it was easy to fall into the thinking that he just wasn't good enough all this time. Out of sight, out of mind.
But with regular starter Tim Howard out with a back injury, Guzan's back-to-back shutouts in World Cup qualifiers, including a clean sheet in the Estadio Azteca on Tuesday (his fifth in seven careeer qualifiers) has quickly shed that image.
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"Brad's performance was huge," US manager Jurgen Klinsmann said after the match. "He stepped it up. He was very vocal, great communication and gave them a lot of confidence throughout that the whole last 10 days. He understood the situation and he made the best out of it and made it clear that if anything comes up with Tim right now, 'I'm more than a No. 2.' That's what his signal was and he was fantastic."
Does being "more than a No. 2" mean Guzan's now competing with Howard for the No. 1 spot? Klinsmann wasn't asked directly, but he certainly hinted at it, while also making it clear Howard's not yesterday's news.
"We didn't forget about Tim. I actually texted back and forth with him today and he wished everybody good luck," Klinsmann said. "We are thrilled with [Guzan's] performance tonight obviously and we're still hoping that Tim is getting healthy as quickly as possible because he's a personality and we need him for his leadership as well."
But the sure-handed Guzan showed similar leadership, authority and fearlessness in the box that we've come to expect with Howard. He even kept his cool with the laser pointers that were directed his way for the entire match in the pressure cooker that is the Estadio Azteca.
"Listen, you deal with that. Obviously it's not ideal but it happens in these types of places," he said. "You have to get on with it. It's part of the environment when you come down to places like Azteca, so you can't let it affect you."
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Guzan wasn't just deflecting shots from El Tri on Tuesday. He also did his best to parry away any attention from himself during his postgame comments, instead choosing to praise his center backs Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, in a voice that was rasp after a night of shouting over 100,000 fans.
He sounded like a wily veteran well beyond his age (he's only 28) or his experience level (he now has 23 caps).
"It's huge especially being the second time a US team has ever come down to a place like Azteca during qualifying and get a result," Guzan said. "It's important. And it's not only important for our team, but it builds some confidence and it gives some of these guys who stepped out on the field tonight gives them a big boost and a big self belief, and that's always a good thing."
Wasn't he in that mix just a few days ago? Apparently not in his mind anymore. Howard beware.