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Oct 3, 2008

Guzan learning the ropes at Villa

Brad Guzan has endured a whirlwind three months, so you can forgive him for not quite remembering his first touch in English soccer.

"I think maybe it was a back pass,'' the imposing 6-foot-4 keeper said with a chuckle before practice Wednesday.

Guzan made his debut for Aston Villa, one of the biggest clubs in Britain and one of the hottest teams in the Premier League, in the relatively low profile League (Carling) Cup on Sept. 24. Given his time at the Olympics in Beijing, where he started all three games as the U.S. agonizingly missed out on the quarterfinals, he only cracked Villa's lineup for the first time Aug. 31 as a backup in a 0-0 draw versus Liverpool.

Up against QPR, the Championship equivalent of cash cows Manchester City and Chelsea, Villa lost 1-0 at home.

Guzan, informed hours earlier by much respected manager Martin O'Neill he'd be playing, was a spectator for long bouts and had little chance on Damion Stewart's headed winner in the second half.

"The feeling was pure excitement and concentration,'' Guzan said. "Just to be able to go on the field and represent your team in a game like that is exciting. You want to ready when your number is called, and that's what it's about, playing in big games. Obviously it was extremely disappointing the result didn't go our way."

Tipped as the future No. 1 rather than an inexpensive gamble -- the 24-year-old's move from California's Chivas USA cost $1.5 million, according to a source familiar with the deal -- it remains to be seen how much more action Guzan gets this season. The fee was believed to be $4 million in January, when he had his first application for a work permit turned down, and sank because the Illinois native was free to leave Chivas without compensation at the end of the 2008 season.

Though 37, fellow American Brad Friedel, also a summer import, from Blackburn, is still one of the top keepers in the division. When asked if he was ready to be the No. 1, Guzan, the reigning MLS goalkeeper of the season and a Celtic target in January, said, "I think I'm going in the right direction.''

New Jersey's Tim Howard, the starter at Everton, admitted he struggled with the aerial component of the British game upon joining the Premier League with Manchester United, his first English club, five years ago from the MLS.

Guzan knows how important that is, too.

"I think the ability for strikers to be able to go up and challenge for balls in the box is very good," he said, "and if you're a goalkeeper you have to be that much better at that aspect of the game."

Not surprisingly, he finds the pace of the English game much quicker than the one in the MLS. That applies to training, too. The transition, he says, hasn't been difficult, simply a change.

Chivas coach Preki, a former forward for Everton and Portsmouth, said only time will tell whether or not Guzan would establish himself in the Midlands. Putting in the hard work won't be a problem.

"He can achieve whatever he wants to achieve,'' Preki said. "He has a lot of potential. It's up to him. Will he reach that potential? Sometimes it's not so easy. At a young age he became an important member of our organization. Now he's taking a different route, and when you do that a lot of times you have to be patient and have to be ready so when you're chance comes, you grab the chance and won't give it away.''

Friedel, who's spent the last 11 years of his career in England, isn't about to hand over his spot to Guzan, a backup to Howard on the national team. It hasn't stopped him from lending a hand to his understudy, on and off the pitch.

While club officials have helped Guzan sort out a car and temporary apartment, Friedel has given him some insight into life in England. He is currently busy looking for a more permanent home in the city, the second most populated in the country.

"Brad's been fantastic,'' Guzan said. "He gives me little pointers here and there about the lifestyle, and things that Americans face as they come over. And then on the field he's been tremendous for me as a colleague to train with as well as a kind of mentor. I couldn't have asked for a better person to work with day in, day out because the experience he brings to the field is priceless."

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.

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