Getting Stuck In: The American definition of “world class”

The Getting Stuck In column delves into some of the more intriguing aspects in US Soccer and MLS, shining a light on the stories regarding the league’s teams and its most-loved characters. This week Dave Lewis looks into whether the U.S. have ever produced a world-class soccer player and looks at three candidates…

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:

Brad Friedel

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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.

You probably need to win a World Cup to be considered truly world class in today’s game, but look at a player like Iker Casillas. He’s a World Cup winner but has looked terrible for a few years now – have you seen him with Porto lately? Friedel was at the top of his game well into his late 30’s and early 40’s. Longevity, class, talent and one of the most accurate long kicks in the world surely mean Friedel was knocking on the door of being labelled world class.

Kasey Keller

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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.

Tim Howard

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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.

Wow, I just got a world class headache.

USMNT, Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Spurs legend to retire

Former US Men’s National Team, Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and current Spurs goalkeeper, Brad Friedel has announced he will retire at the end of this season.

The Premier League legend, 43, has decided the time is right to hang up his gloves after an incredible 18 year spell in England, where he is regarded as one of the greats to have played between the sticks.

Friedel’s first spell in England came as a Newcastle United youth player where he did not make an appearance and then moved on to Danish side Brøndby IF before a move to Galatasaray S.K. in Turkey. He briefly returned to MLS with the Columbus Crew for a year before joining Liverpool in 1997 and has been in the Premier League since.

Club Games Played Clean Sheets Yellow Cards Red Cards Goals
Liverpool 27 8
Blackburn 300 95 1 1
Aston Villa 130 36 2 1
Tottenham 67 19 1
TOTAL 524 158 4 1 1

Friedel is one of just five ‘keepers to have scored a Premier League goal. It came back in 2004 against Charlton during his time as Blackburn Rovers number one. The American fan-favourite bagged a 90th minute equaliser only to be picking the ball out of his own net minutes later to be denied true hero status. He won the 2001/02 League Cup with Rovers, which is the only piece of silverware he won during his time in England.

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The 43-year-old holds the record for the most consecutive Premier League appearances with 310 games between August 2004 and November 2012.

He is Tottenham Hotspur’s record holder of being their oldest player. His last league appearance for Spurs came back in 2013 as Hugo Lloris has become first-choice, with Michel Vorm backup.

Friedel made 82 appearances for the USMNT and spoke to Sky Sports about his time in England as he is set to move back home.

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“I always wanted to play as long as I could but there’s two things that go with that – one is physically being able to which I still am, two is mentally wanting to do it,” he said.

“I’ve loved living in England. Myself and my family have fallen in love with the place. My kids were born and raised here so moving to the United States is something completely different for them.

“I’m not moving back for the sole reason I am American. If the opportunities weren’t there and they weren’t so great I would have no problem living my life in England. It’s my home away from home.”

Friedel is Tottenham Hotspur’s Club Ambassador focusing on the USA, which will only bring Major League Soccer and the Premier League closer together.

We can expect to see Friedel back in England in the future as he has already tried his hand at punditry on a number of occasions. Football is saying goodbye to a true Premier League legend.

Which club did you enjoy seeing Brad Friedel at the most? Where does he rank among the Premier League’s greatest goalkeepers?