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'The stuff storybooks are written about' - Horvath the unlikely hero on career-defining night for USMNT

2:00 PM EDT 6/7/21
Ethan Horvath USMNT 2021
The backup shot-stopper stepped in for the Nations League final following Zack Steffen's injury, making a trophy-winning penalty save at the death

Realistically, a backup goalkeeper is your 'break in case of emergency' option. By and large, your No.2 'keeper's job is to help prepare the No.1, train hard and, in those moments when called upon, provide stability to a team in need.

So, when he woke up on Sunday morning, there is no chance that Ethan Horvath expected to go to bed a U.S. men's national team hero.

But, on Sunday night, the USMNT found themselves breaking him out to deal with an emergency.

It was Horvath that provided a moment that will go down in history as part of one of international soccer's most intense rivalries.

He earned legendary status by stopping Andres Guardado's 120th-minute penalty kick on Sunday, sealing the USMNT's 3-2 win while earning the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League trophy.

It was one of several key stops Horvath made on the day in place of Zack Steffen, but it was that stop on Guardado that sealed his place in USMNT lore.

It also gave the 25-year-old a much-needed and much-deserved moment in the spotlight, having spent the last several years in the shadows for both club and country.

Playing in Denver, just miles away from his hometown, Horvath somehow played his way into a fairytale of a night that could define his career.

"If you're on the bench as a keeper, you don't expect to come in the game," Horvath told CBS, "and it's just a whole bunch of emotions. I was so proud of the boys because we put in a hell of a shift and a special moment for me. This is my hometown Denver, and I couldn't be happier with the boys."

Horvath's stay in Denver was expected to largely be spent on the bench. He started the USMNT's pre-tournament friendly against Switzerland with Steffen still with Manchester City for the Champions League final, turning in a Man of the Match-level performance as the U.S. were defeated.

But, despite heading into the Nations League semifinals and finals as backup, Horvath was flooded with ticket requests. A total of 21 friends and family were in the stands, he said, for what was his first trip back to the city in three or four years.

For all 90 minutes of the USMNT's win over Honduras and the first 69 minutes of Sunday's classic against Mexico, Horvath remained on the bench, as he largely has been in recent times thanks to Steffen's rise through Europe. That was until the Manchester City goalkeeper suffered an apparent injury, forcing the USMNT into a change.

"Me and Zach have been on the national team together since we were14 years old and we have a fantastic relationship on and off the field," Horvath said. "He just said that everyone believes in me and to just do me."

Steffen's faith in his team-mate was rewarded, as Horvath made a number key saves down the stretch, including a 90th-minute stop on Hirving Lozano that forced extra-time.

But his big moment came in stoppage time of that extra-time period, just minutes after the USMNT had taken the lead through Christian Pulisic.

Still on a high from Pulisic's goal, VAR determined that Mexico were to be awarded a penalty for a handball in the box with just seconds remaining, putting Horvath into the spotlight.

And he thrived, diving to his right to push away Guardado's penalty and effectively seal the win for the U.S.

"We spent a good 30-40 minutes on watching penalties, just in case it went to a penalty shootout," Horvath said. "We watched from the guys who will start the game, from the bench guys. So if it was me Zack or David [Ochoa] in goal, any of the three of us, any one of us were prepared to step in and go and take a penalty. It's down to us doing our homework."

Making Horvath's heroics all the more improbable is the lack of game-time he has seen at club level.

He has spent the last five seasons at Club Brugge, initially serving as the club's starter from 2017-19. But, following the signing of former Liverpool man Simon Mignolet, Horvath quickly became the understudy to the Belgium international.

As a result, he has only played seven games for Brugge over the last two seasons, and currently faces an uncertain future.

Games like Sunday's will no doubt attract some suitors though, as Horvath's big night could create a wave that carries over to the club level.

"He was the coaches' man of the match," USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter said of Horvath. "Just thinking about how difficult it is for goalkeepers to come into the game in that stage of the game, and then to make the impact that he made was remarkable.

"I'm really proud of Ethan. It's been a tough season for him, and to come in and have a performance like that in his hometown was the stuff storybooks are written about."

And so Sunday was a storybook night for Horvath and the USMNT, an ending that was as unpredictable as it was spectacular. But, despite it all, Horvath insisted that there were no big celebrations planned.

"I don't drink alcohol," he said, "so just give me a cola or a Pepsi Max." 

An unorthodox celebratory drink, to be sure, but, then again, there was nothing about Horvath's big night that was conventional to begin with.