Circumstances have opened the door for Brad Friedel to make a possible return to the United States national team, leaving Jurgen Klinsmann in a very precarious situation.
After Tim Howard suffered an unfortunate injury - breaking two vertebrae in his back - the U.S. could be without its No. 1 keeper for at least a month. Howard is arguably the third most important American star after Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, and his leadership and athleticism has prevented the team's shaky backline from being exposed time after time. With two crucial qualifiers ahead against Costa Rica and Mexico, a ticket to Brazil in 2014 could be put in serious danger if the team doesn't secure at least one win.
That's where Friedel comes in.
Upon learning of Howard's injury, Friedel immediately made a noble gesture, offering to come out of a eight-year retirement to aid his home country while stressing that he would only consider such a move if current backup Brad Guzan is also injured. This has led many, including former U.S. international Eric Wynalda, to suggest that Friedel should start even if Guzan is healthy.
As tempting of an option as it would be to bring in Friedel, Klinsmann, the team's head coach, would be making a grave mistake if he snubs his No. 2 keeper.
Guzan's club team, Aston Villa, has conceded the most goals in the Premier League and is currently hovering above the relegation zone, but there are many factors behind the team's struggles on defense. It can't all be blamed on Guzan.
Since selling the likes of Ashley Young, James Milner and Stewart Downing over the past few years, Aston Villa has undergone a full-blown rebuilding project and is currently the youngest team in the Premier League with an average age of 23. Villa's lone veteran in the back, Richard Dunne, has been injured throughout the season, leaving the team with very little leadership on defense.
The result? Guzan has faced the third-highest amount of shot attempts (152) in the league.
Despite those circumstances, the former Chivas USA star has never lost confidence and is third in saves (an astonishing 105) and ninth in save percentage (saving 69 percent of all shots) among players who have at least 20 starts. Guzan's save percentage is better than Howard, England's No. 1 goalkeeper Joe Hart and Liverpool's Pepe Reina to name a few. Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert said he wouldn't trade Guzan for any keeper in the Premiership after his team's 2-1 victory over Reading on Saturday.
"He’s been colossal," Lambert told reporters in his postgame conference. "Brad’s made some massive saves for us at big moments. Would I swap him? Not at all. He’s a good guy. A top character."
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Guzan's U.S. stats are equally impressive in limited opportunities. It is often forgotten that Guzan manned the net for the USA's 3-0 victory over Egypt that turned around the nation's fortunes in the 2009 Confederations Cup. He was 3-1-1 in qualifying matches for the 2010 World Cup. However, Guzan has yet to start under Klinsmann, which leaves the former Germany boss with a difficult decision.
Considering the team's problems with its defense, where it has opted for younger players in Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez, wouldn't it be wiser to go with Friedel, who would gain instant respect for his legendary status in American soccer?
Possibly, but it would be an easy way out and point to bigger concerns. Even if Friedel only comes as a injury replacement for both Howard and Guzan, what does that signal about starlets in waiting Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson?
Both players are in their fourth season for their respective teams D.C. United and the Chicago Fire, and each keeper has made strides moving forward. Producing stellar goalkeepers has been a strength of the U.S. over the past two decades and bringing back Friedel over either of those players would suggest that neither player is ready to handle caps for the national team. For a team that is already being of accused of stagnating since the last World Cup, it would be a bad sign if the U.S. can't even produce solid goalkeepers anymore.
And if Friedel does receive a call-up with a healthy Guzan available, it would surely take a toll on the Aston Villa keeper's confidence. Guzan has trained hard for this opportunity for over seven years, never complaining about lack of starts. He is confident that he can be successful in filling in for Howard as he knows the most important goal is qualifying for next year's World Cup.
"There's no sugarcoating it: We need to go into Denver and get three points," Guzan told Sports Illustrated. "Then we go on to Mexico, where everyone knows it's a tough place to go. But we have to be confident in our ability and what we're about as a team and try to get a good result as well."
He's ready, Jurgen.