Friedel invigorated by move to Villa
Goalkeepers are playing longer and longer these days, so at 37, Brad Friedel knows he still has a few good years left.
Look at Portsmouth's David James, who turned 38 this month. He was arguably the Premiership's top stopper last season. Kasey Keller is still chugging, at the same age, continuing his soccer adventures back home in Seattle.
It's rare, however, for a goalkeeper to make a big move pushing 40, like Friedel did when he left Blackburn in July for Aston Villa, one of the biggest clubs in England and one on the rise thanks to manager Martin O'Neill, U.S. owner Randy Lerner and a slew of stars just a tad younger than Friedel.
An iron man, Friedel spent eight years at Blackburn and was the undisputed No. 1. He signed a contract extension as recently as February, which was supposed to keep him at Ewood Park until 2010.
"I didn't think I'd get an opportunity like this, not at all,'' the Ohio native said. "I really did think I'd end my Premier League career with Blackburn. Then this opportunity came up, and I was very excited to take it. It sort of reignited something in my belly."
Friedel doesn't have an agent, so the first he heard about a possible transfer came in the newspapers, where rumors, at least in the offseason, seem to outweigh facts. He didn't pay too much attention, only taking serious notice when he was informed Villa made an official inquiry about his services.
Sixth last season, one spot ahead of Blackburn, and one of four English teams to lift the much coveted European Cup, Villa sought a goalkeeper after failing to hold on to former England regular Scott Carson, who was on loan from Liverpool and now plies his trade at promoted West Bromwich Albion. Friedel developed a rapport with O'Neill, and the teams eventually settled on a fee believed to be about $4 million.
"He's an absolutely quality goalkeeper," O'Neill said.
At the same time, turmoil was rife at Blackburn. Manager Mark Hughes, a backer of Friedel, joined Manchester City, and glittering winger David Bentley was on his way to Tottenham. Speculation of unrest under new boss Paul Ince abounded. Friedel suggested he wasn't pushed out by Ince, who's since brought in former England No. 1 Paul Robinson from Spurs.
"Paul [Ince] wanted me to stay, and he did everything in his power to try to make me stay,'' Friedel said. "This was my choice. As a pro you need to challenge and push yourself. I could have stayed somewhat in a comfort zone, even though with a new manager, there wasn't a comfort zone. It was a gut feeling I had and a chance I wanted to take. It had more to do with Villa.''
Friedel figures to be challenged more for the No. 1 spot at Villa than he was at Blackburn, where former Villan and Finnish international Peter Enckelman, prone to the odd blunder or two, was his most recent serious competition. Countryman Brad Guzan, a U.S. international and last season's MLS goalie of the year, was finally granted a work permit this summer. O'Neill gushed the 23-year-old has the "potential" to become "excellent" at his position. Stuart Taylor, once of Arsenal, was Carson's backup for most of last campaign.
"Competition is something I'm used to," said Friedel. "Brad is a very young goalkeeper, and I look forward to working with him and Stuart. This is the first time Brad will walk into a club where there are other good keepers. I know the MLS is a pro league, but it's not where the Premier League is."
To no one's surprise, Friedel was between the posts as the Premier League began last weekend, with Taylor on the bench. Villa topped Manchester City 4-2 at home, benefiting from a second-half hat-trick by one of the league's brightest prospects, 21-year-old Gabriel Agbonlahor. In Agbonlahor and 23-year-old winger Ashley Young, Villa is armed with two of the speediest attacking players in the division.
Villa is being touted as one of the teams with an outside shot of cracking the top four and thus earning a spot in the lucrative Champions League.
"I'll let the gaffer talk about what the goals are," Friedel said. "But I'm very excited about the strength in our squad. The club has the ability to add to the squad, too."
While Friedel enjoyed a winning start, Everton's Tim Howard, the U.S. No. 1 in goal, was a loser. Blackburn's Andre Ooijer scored in second-half injury time as Rovers rallied for a 3-2 win at Goodison Park.
Texan Clint Dempsey, one of only two Americans at Fulham now following the departures of Keller, influential striker Brian McBride and defender Carlos Bocanegra, came on as an 81st-minute substitute in a somewhat embarrassing 2-1 loss at new arrival Hull City. Striker Eddie Johnson, yet to establish himself at Craven Cottage, didn't make the bench and is rumored to be considering a loan move to Cardiff.
West Ham's Jonathan Spector missed the Hammers' 2-1 win over Wigan with a long-term hip injury.
Friedel and Villa visit Stoke City, a heavy favorite for relegation, this weekend; Everton, fifth last season, travels to West Brom; Fulham hosts Arsenal; and West Ham is away to Manchester City.
Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.