It’s a question we ask often in sports, prompting us to look past in-their-prime stars and heap attention on the intriguing kids who might push their team to new heights a few years down the road.
For supporters of the US men’s national team, “Who’s next?” isn’t just an occasional question. It’s more of a raison d’étre, a constant, nagging feeling that bubbles just under the surface during the good times and erupts to the forefront during the rough stretches.
Over the past couple of years, the question has grown to include the US’s goalkeeping position. Long the team’s strongest spot, things are now a bit uncertain between the posts for the US. Tim Howard and Brad Guzan will be 43 and 37, respectively, by the time the 2022 World Cup rolls around. The US will almost certainly need a new man in net in Qatar, and it’d be wise to blood him during qualification.
But who will it be? Who’s then next No. 1 goalkeeper for the US?
A few guys have had chances. Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson were the hot young names earlier this decade, but neither have been able to carve out a consistent place with the national team, even as the No. 3. Ethan Horvath, 22, has a pair of caps, but has been relegated to the bench with his club in Belgium and conceded a howler in the US’s recent 1-1 draw at Portugal. FC Dallas’ Jesse Gonzalez has been called to several camps, but has yet to make his first appearance with the senior team.
If any of those four want the US’s top spot, they’ll have to beat out the two ‘keepers currently battling in the Eastern Conference Championship. Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen, 22, and Toronto FC backstop Alex Bono, 23, will play a huge role as Crew SC and TFC look to break their scoreless deadlock in Leg 2 of the East final on Wednesday at BMO Field (7:30 pm ET; FS1 in the US | TSN 1/4/5, TVAS in Canada). Both have emerged as two of the better netminders in MLS this season, both have been excellent in the playoffs and both are climbing the USMNT depth chart.
Overshadowed throughout TFC’s historic season by Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, Bono put together a quietly solid 2017 for the Reds. The third-year pro kept 10 shutouts, finished third in the league with a 1.14 goals-against average and recorded a 69.2 save percentage, seventh in MLS among qualified ‘keepers. He might not have the raw shot-stopping ability of Steffen, Hamid or Gonzalez, but he was more consistent than any of those three in 2017. He’s composed, confident and has the capacity to make big stops, something he showed late in Leg 1 and in both of TFC's East semifinal matches against the New York Red Bulls.
“I think Alex has been great,” TFC manager Greg Vanney told reporters after the Leg 1 scoreless draw. “We talk about it every game now it seems like, and at some point it’ll be expected. But he’s done a great job. I think when you’re in the playoffs and you’re on the road, you’re going to need your goalkeeper to come up with something, especially when you play against good attacking teams and Columbus is that. I thought all night Alex was in good spots, he was in good spots to deal with crosses, to take things out of the air, to grab some things and hold onto them.”
Bono has been consistent, but Steffen has been occasionally spectacular. His incredible Knockout Round showing at Atlanta – first in regulation and extra time, then in the shootout – will go down as one of the more impressive goalkeeping performances in MLS Cup Playoff history. He’s got the size, athleticism and range to make the outstanding saves look routine and make USMNT fans salivate. He’s only played one year as a starter, but he’s already impressed Crew SC with his demeanor in addition to his physical tools.
“I’ve been really impressed with what he’s been doing this year,” Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter said ahead of Leg 1. “He’s so calm, he’s so poised and he’s really playing beyond his years. I think that’s the important thing; his calmness, his demeanor has had a great effect on the team.”
I’d put Guzan and Hamid ahead of both on the current depth chart, but Steffen and Bono have each earned a look with the USMNT. I’d call the pair and Gonzalez to the upcoming January camp, giving the 33-year-old Guzan a bit of a breather and allowing Hamid to get integrated with new club FC Midtjylland as the Danish team train over their winter break. Let the young trio duke it out in Southern California, and start the competition of finding the US’s long-term starting goalkeeper in earnest.
They’ve got other business to attend to this week, but keep an eye on Steffen and Bono for the USMNT. Their positions will no doubt fluctuate over the next few years, but they’re already in the national team’s goalkeeper conversation. If they continue their current trajectories, they’ll have a good shot at becoming the US's next No. 1.