When will the U.S. produce a world-class soccer player? It’s a fair question. We haven’t come close and probably won’t unless we get some of our best athletes from American football (throwball) and basketball to make the switch to soccer. We need the Stephen Curry’s and Russell Wilson’s of the world to fall in love with the game at six years old, see the financial potential of soccer (MLS would likely need to trash the salary cap), and then maybe, just maybe, we could produce a world-class player.
But wait. On further inspection, maybe we have produced a world-class player. Ok, maybe not an outfield player, but what about a goalkeeper?
People in the know say Americans make great net-minders because of the hand-eye coordination it takes to play basketball, baseball and American football – the three sports most commonly played by youngsters when growing up. It’s why there have been three American goalkeepers who I would categorise as “world class.” We are not talking Ronaldo or Messi calibre here, but within the ‘keeper fraternity, there are three top guys: Tim Howard, Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller. Let me make a case for each one:
Friedel is one of my favourite U.S. players to have played the game. He comes from Ohio but has a legit English accent to this day due to his lengthy playing career in England. The man owns a ton of Premier League records playing for Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham. He makes many people’s top 10 list for the best Premier League goalkeepers of all time. But his most impressive work came with the U.S. Men’s National Team, most notably during the 2002 World Cup when the U.S. made a magical run to the quarterfinals. Friedel was arguably the best ‘keeper in the tournament behind Germany’s Oliver Kahn. In that tournament Friedel made two non-shootout penalty saves, which is almost unheard of at such a high level. Kahn was out of his mind, making world-class save after world-class save, but Friedel was not far behind.
I put Keller slightly behind Friedel. But only slightly. His cat-like reflexes and cool demeanor made him a fan-favourite when he was with Millwall. And we all know how tough those fans can be. He played with Tottenham and Borussia Monchengladbach as well as Fulham and Leicester City during his time in Europe. But he was best known for being capped with the USMNT 102 times. The highlight of his career came in a historic win over Brazil, in which he made a staggering 13 saves, many from point-blank range. This prompted Romario to say: “That is the best performance by a goalkeeper I have ever seen.” Keller was a real good guy, who was a leader, great communicator and was able to dictate the pace of the game from the back. So what if he sulked at times for not being picked as first choice? We have all done that.
Yes, we all know about the record 16 saves made against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup, which says a lot about Howard but more about the questionable U.S. backline. But it’s his club career where he has really distinguished himself. He was bought by Manchester United and played incredibly well during his first year, being named to the best XI in the Premier League. Unfortunately Alex Ferguson (the manager) never forgave him for blowing it in the Champions League against Porto. He was buried, and to make it even worse, was replaced by the great (insert sarcasm here) Roy Carroll. Everton signed Timmy and boy, was that good business! He has appeared in over 350 games for the Toffees over a ten-year period, making save after save on his way to becoming endeared by the Goodison Park faithful. His shot-stopping ability is world class. Unfortunately his work on crosses is not as good as it could be. That’s why he is third on this list behind Keller and Friedel. But hey, nobody’s perfect.
I may never see another crop of American goalkeepers like Friedel, Keller and Howard in my lifetime. But what concerns me is that the next star between the sticks is yet to step forward. Friedel and Keller have retired. Howard’s form has slipped to the point of backup and he is set to return to MLS with the Colorado Rapids this summer.
What about Guzan? Good start to his Villa career, not so good this year. Sean Johnson? Bill Hamid? Good MLS ‘keepers but not worth mentioning, even though I just did. Cody Cropper may be in line for greatness, but right now he is playing for Championship side Milton Keynes Dons.