On March 28, 2009, Brad Guzan started for the U.S. national team in a Hexagonal match at El Salvador. With Tim Howard suspended due to yellow card accumulation, the U.S. drew 2-2.
Nearly four years to the day, Guzan will lead the U.S. out against Costa Rica in a crunch Hexagonal match. It will be the first time since that evening in San Salvador somebody other than Tim Howard will start a World Cup qualifier.
Though the 28-year-old has been brilliant in his first season as Aston Villa starter (his manager Paul Lambert recently said he wouldn't trade Guzan for any other keeper), circumstances outside his performances on West Midlands have set many a nerve jangling.
Following a frustrating 2-1 loss at Honduras in the USA's Hex opener, Friday's home match is seen as something of a must-win-that-isn't-technically-a-must-win, especially with a trip to the Azteca looming just four days later.
Guzan – he of just 20 caps and no U.S. starts in nearly three years – enters with a frighteningly inexperienced back line. With injuries to Fabian Johnson, Timothy Chandler, Edgar Castillo, Steve Cherundolo and Jonathan Spector, as well as Carlos Bocanegra's lack of playing time, the entire defense called in by Jurgen Klinsmann has 12 combined World Cup qualifying appearances.
“It's problematic because of the context in which it comes,” former national team defender and current ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas told Goal.com. “We've never had a moment in U.S. men's national team history where the back four is so unsettled and unknown."
In the learn-on-the-fly world of international soccer, where teams are only together for weeks, or even days at a time, Guzan's addition to an already-green back line will test every ounce of the USA's flexibility.
“As a defender you are inherently a pessimist,” Lalas said. “You are constantly saying 'what if,' but part of the calculation comes with a good understanding of the players you're playing with.
“I know because I've played with this guy that this is how he's going to react and you base everything off of that. But if you don't have that at your disposal, it's putting data in to spit out a formula, but not all the data that you want to give yourself the best possible chance of a good output from that calculation.”
Miscommunication in the back was a theme for the U.S. throughout the Honduras game, with the Catrachos' winner coming from a seemingly innocuous through ball. For some, however, unfamiliarity in the back will be an issue regardless of who is in goal.
“Tim Howard didn't have any experience with that [center back] pairing either, so with Brad in there, it isn't going to be that much of a difference,” former U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola told Goal.com.
The Honduras match was the first time Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron had ever played together as a center back duo. Their second match together could come Friday, or Cameron could shift to outside back, making Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson a first-time central defensive pair. Or Klinsmann could introduce midfielder Maurice Edu into the fray.
With or without Howard in goal, it's hardly ideal.
“Coordination and understanding and communication is developed over time in a back unit which includes a goalkeeper,” Lalas said. “While the U.S. is still figuring it out as a back four, whoever comes in to replace Tim Howard will also have to be figuring it out, and you only want a couple players that are figuring it out when it comes to a game that means something.”
In a worst-case scenario, inserting Guzan's inexperience into a mostly-untested defense could lead to rampant miscommunication, forwards roaming free, and ugly goals conceded.
But what if the opposite is actually the case? Beneath the waves of unrest lies a tremendous opportunity for Guzan to prove himself in meaningful games. If he comes through in a big way, could he set the wheels in motion for a potential goalkeeper controversy?
“In these games, it's all about getting points,” Meola said. “If Jurgen thinks that Brad gives him a better chance at getting points, then that's who he will play.”
It seems almost unfathomable that a stalwart like Howard could be nudged out of the lineup, but Guzan's stock has been on a meteoric rise in a short amount of time. It's also worth considering Klinsmann has experience with a similar scenario.
For eight years, Oliver Kahn was a fixture in goal for Germany's national team, even winning the Golden Ball as the best player overall at World Cup 2002. When Klinsmann took over Die Mannschaft in 2006, he began rotating Kahn with in-form Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann.
As World Cup 2006 approached, Klinsmann made the highly-controversial decision to drop his mainstay and hitch his wagon to Lehmann – a similarly-aged, but much less experienced goalkeeper at the international level. Lehmann went on to lead Germany to a third-placed finish.
For Guzan, his time in the spotlight has arrived. If he can overcome the rampant inexperience he'll be dealing with and turn in two solid performances, Klinsmann – once again – might have a real decision on his hands.
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