For most of the past fifteen years, the U.S. national team has been spoiled with world-class goalkeepers who excelled for both club and country. No run of results more typifies the importance of the goalkeeper to the United States national team then the 2002 run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. The storied performance was made possible in part through some stellar individual efforts by Brad Friedel, who was heralded by some as the tournament's most outstanding goalkeeper behind only Germany's Oliver Kahn.
For a national team that still is somewhat naïve and lacks the savvy of the more sophisticated European teams in the group stage, it is fundamentally crucial that the choice of goalkeepers for the team be as deep as any field position. The fact that it might currently be one of the most shallow selections on the team is downright scary.
In a piece on ESPNsoccernet that first appeared earlier this year, Ives Galarcep lamented the current lack of goalkeeping in MLS and noted that the league had always produced high-caliber goalkeepers.
The truth is that this is not just a MLS-specific problem but is a drought for the national team as well. With the retirement from international play of Brad Friedel, the United States not only lost its starting goalkeeper but the move also directly affected the team's depth chart.
Friedel's decision to focus on his club career forced the very capable Kasey Keller into the starter's role. While many nations in the world would be envious to have Keller as their starting goalkeeper, it was a comfort to Arena to know that should Friedel falter or battle injuries, Keller was always a viable option.
With Keller now a lock to man the nets for the team this June in Germany, Arena has done a woeful job in finding the second and third keepers for the World Cup team. Many have penciled-in Tim Howard to be Keller's backup and understudy; a move that makes sense with the tournament most likely being Keller's last international hurrah.
The opportunity for Howard to soak up the World Cup atmosphere will be invaluable for the 27-year-old MetroStars product, who made a splash in the English Premiership upon his purchase by Manchester United in 2004 but has since battled for consistent playing time. While he should be a lock for the team, the competition for the third goalkeeper must now be questioned in light of Howard's match preparedness come June.
All indications point to Marcus Hahnemann being slotted into the third keeper role. Hahnemann has been more then adequate this season as Reading FC has earned promotion to the Premiership. The former Seattle Sounders and Colorado Rapids net minder will turn 34 during the World Cup, yet has limited international experience -- having earned just a handful of caps for the national team. Combining Howard's dearth of consistent playing time over the past year along with Hahnemann's lack of international experience and the options after Keller are far from inspiring.
The option for Arena is evident; the remedy to the situation is none other then Tony Meola. Remember, it was Meola who controversially was named to the squad four years ago to fill a similar role of experience and composure. His presence assured Arena that should either Friedel or Keller be unable to perform he had a goalkeeper on the squad who has and could handle the job.
Ironically, it was who Meola beat out the raw and inexperienced Tim Howard for that final slot. While Howard is more prepared to handle the position for the national team then he was four years ago, Meola is by far the best and most experienced option to have as a third keeper. Having recently earned his 100th cap with the team, Meola would be a more stabilizing factor to have on the team behind Howard then Hahnemann.
Meola's numbers through the first portion of the MLS season have been far from gaudy. In the first four matches of the MLS season, Meola's record stands at a less then stellar 0-3-1 with an abysmal 1.75 goals against average that places him in the bottom half of all MLS goalkeepers. Quite frankly, these are not the type of statistics that a World Cup-caliber player is expected to put up.
While statistics don't lie, they also are far more indicative of the quality of the Red Bull New York's midfield and backline then of Meola's standard of play this year. Numbers alone don't tell the story for Meola, who at times been the salvation of the team. His 29 saves through four games leads all MLS keepers and is a testament to the 37-year-old's ability to keep his team in the game.
Another intangible to Meola's game is his distribution, a skill that is perhaps the best of any American keeper -- whether in MLS or abroad. His composure and ability to jump start a counterattack is still as sharp as ever and is one of his most valuable assets.
More importantly, Meola has recovered fully from the injuries that hampered him throughout much of 2004 and 2005 and is now as fit and trim as he has been during his MLS career. Despite having been quoted that this might be his last year of professional soccer, the truth is that the man is still very much in his prime. There is no doubt that Meola's performance in MLS thus far has proven to be a class above any other keeper in the league, record notwithstanding. Much like Meola and perhaps Keller, it is unlikely that Hahnemann will be in the national team picture much longer due to his age. The argument to bring Hahnemann to Germany as a part of his development is not plausible. Even if you consider Meola and Hahnemann equals in terms of talent and ability, Meola's wealth of experience at the World Cup and international level is clearly the tipping point when comparing the two. Meola should in no way replace Howard on the depth chart but he is the ideal supplement to the roster. Marcus Hahnemann should be applauded for his achievements with Reading over the past several seasons, but Arena must choose someone with the experience of Meola to provide balance and provide much needed depth at the position. The choice is clear for Arena, but it remains to be seen if he will make the right move.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer who covers US Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet and The New York City Sporting News. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com