In November, Jurgen Klinsmann summoned goalkeepers Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and Bill Hamid to the U.S. national team ahead of two World Cup qualifiers. Howard and Guzan interrupted their Premier League work, while understudy Hamid arrived after another sterling MLS season.
Three months later, the most stable of positions in the U.S. program is showing cracks.
Howard is struggling to regain his Everton job, Guzan has dropped to second choice with last-place Aston Villa and Hamid is recovering from a knee operation that will keep him out of D.C. United’s lineup for months.
If there was one area American soccer has never had to fret about, it was goalkeeper. Since 1990, when the United States ended a 40-year absence from the World Cup, the job has been in good hands: notably those of Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and, for the past several years, Howard and Guzan, with Nick Rimando as a reliable reserve.
But when Klinsmann gathers his squad late next month for a pair of qualifiers against Guatemala, the shot-blocking function might, for the first time in recent memory, come with concerns.
This is not to suggest American soccer’s world-class strength is now a weakness. Even if they remain in reserve in England, Howard and Guzan carry years of international experience and remain among the finer netminders in the CONCACAF region and beyond. Without the fitness demands of outfield players, goalies do not necessarily need to play every week in order to maintain quality form and, in their cases, remain in Klinsmann’s good graces.
Clearly, though, Klinsmann would prefer to have one or both of his top keepers in rhythm before camp opens ahead of the March 25 qualifier in Guatemala City and the March 29 rematch in Columbus, Ohio.
Regardless, both are almost certain of receiving invitations. The third slot might return to Real Salt Lake’s Rimando, who missed the November qualifiers and winter camp after undergoing surgery to repair meniscus damage.
Whether Howard and Guzan regain starting jobs in England will undoubtedly claim some of Klinsmann’s attention. Howard, 36, has not been at his best this season and, after suffering a minor knee injury last month, yielded the job to Spain’s Joel Robles. Although Howard is healthy again, Robles has remained in the lineup.
The shift comes amid speculation that, despite two years left on his contract, the 2014 World Cup hero will return to MLS this summer after 13 Premier League seasons. ESPNFC.com reported that the Colorado Rapids are his primary suitors.
This week, Everton Manager Roberto Martinez spoke as if Howard was nearing the end of his phenomenal run at the Liverpool-based club.
“We will have to take a bit of time to consider his best moments and what he has done for this club,” he told British reporters. “We should appreciate that and give him that warmth between now and the end of the season. I think it’s important that Tim doesn’t feel that all his good work has been forgotten.”
Guzan, 31, had started all but six of Aston Villa’s league matches the previous three campaigns and the first 20 this season before falling out of favor last month. He has since backed up Englishman Mark Bunn in league play and started two FA Cup matches.
Villa, a 6-0 loser at home against Liverpool on Sunday, is headed for relegation to the second tier next season after 28 years in the top flight.
Aside from Guzan’s playing form, his relationship with disgruntled supporters has also deteriorated: Last month he and a teammate were accused of shouting obscenities at fans behind the bench during an FA Cup match.
Hamid would have been Klinsmann’s top choice at the winter camp, which featured almost exclusively MLS players. But the Annandale native reinjured his knee before the report date, sidelining him four to six months.
Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls) and David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes) started in the friendlies against Iceland and Canada, respectively. They have a combined three international appearances.