The veteran goalkeepers begin their battle to replace Tim Howard when the USA faces the Czech Republic on Wednesday.Goalkeepers tend to travel together in packs on the training field. They need to do their own thing and prepare in their own way before joining into other drills with their teammates. It is in these smaller moments that the absence of Tim Howard is perhaps felt most acutely.
Howard isn't just a member of a trio, of course. He is a force of nature capable of standing on his head against Belgium. He is an influential figure on the training field and in the locker room after starting for the past two World Cup cycles. His decision to step away from the U.S. national team until next September leaves a void to fill moving forward beyond his ability to produce time and again.
"His presence is big here," U.S. goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. "He's a huge leader for this team on and off the field. But I think we have a lot of veterans here. We've still got the good banter with (U.S. goalkeeper coach) Chris Woods and (Brad) Guzan. Things are still ticking and tocking."
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The inevitable vacancy leaves Guzan and Rimando to jostle for positioning in the race for the No. 1 shirt. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann isn't tabbing favorites ahead of the friendly against Czech Republic on Wednesday night. Both players will split the duties as the interlude without Howard commences.
"I said right away, Nick, I want you to come here, you're going to play a half." Klinsmann said. "Brad will play a half. The race is open. We'll watch both of you."
Guzan — the dutiful No. 2 relegated to intermittent and often successful appearances behind Howard — opens the battle as the favorite. His ascent with Aston Villa over the past two seasons and his experience in pressure-filled World Cup qualifiers over the past couple of years makes him a natural fit to assume the role.
The opportunity to start regularly beckons for Guzan now after years of waiting. But he harps on the need to maintain the desire to prove himself all over again.
"For me, it's no different, really," Guzan said. "I continue to go about my business with my club team and hope to get a phone call to represent my country. When you do, it's always an honor to be called in. For me, I continue to train day in and day out as best I can. If the manager picks my name and number, then I'm ready to help. You don't expect anything to be given to you as a professional. You have to earn everything. For me, in that sense, nothing changes."
Rimando lurks as the potential threat to the expected procession after earning Klinsmann's trust at the Gold Cup last summer. His continued good form with Real Salt Lake and his technical ability with his feet constitute a viable alternative to Guzan's expected promotion.
The veteran goalkeeper served as the No. 3 in Brazil, but his presence in Prague — he is the only MLS player included on the roster for this match with the league in full swing — highlights his importance within the ranks. Rimando said he needs to press his claims through his performances when he eventually earns his place on the field.
"Every time I've gone on the pitch, I think I've done well," Rimando said. "It's an opportunity to come in if called upon and show what you can bring to this team. That's exactly the way I'm looking at it. I'm not putting too much pressure on myself, but I'm coming in here and doing what I do day in and day out."
Howard's exit from the scene reinforces the need to produce consistently in order to secure a regular place in the side and stave off the eventual challenges from developing national team prospects like Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid and Cody Cropper as this cycle progresses.
There is no dominant No. 1 right now, no overwhelming figure like Howard to mandate his own selection. Guzan and Rimando must rely on their base ability to repel the opposition and the other strengths — Guzan as an aerial presence, Rimando as a distributor and a valve for possession out of the back — to force their way into the team and stay there for as long as possible.
"They're a little bit different goalies in their way," Klinsmann said. "Everybody is different anyways. We want to see over the next year or so where this thing leads to. I think Nick Rimando has been outstanding throughout his entire career. He has upsides (in some areas) where maybe Brad Guzan has upsides in a different area. We'll check that out. We'll see how that fits."
It will take some time to cope with Howard's temporary departure from the scene and chart the new path forward. For now, it is simply about taking each callup, each day, each training session and each walk together as a chance to sort things out along the way.
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