As the U.S. celebrated its 2-0 victory over Mexico to open World Cup hexagonal qualifying Feb. 11, star goalie Tim Howard sidled up to his backup, Brad Guzan. "Pretty sure you're getting the next game," said Howard, who drew his second yellow card in as many matches, disqualifying him from the March 28 contest in El Salvador.
"That was the furthest thing from my mind," Guzan said, "I just put it on the back burner and went back to enjoying the victory." Probably a wise move. Games in El Salvador can be a buzz kill.
Though the U.S. is 4-0-2 against El Salvador in World Cup qualifiers, the country is notoriously tough on opponents, with fan pastimes including but not limited to hurling bags of urine. This year might be even sketchier. Salvadoran voters recently elected the formerly communist FMLN party, which the U.S. government has adamantly opposed for the past 30 years. The chucked objects could have an angrier edge, and a lefty spin.
Don't expect the charged atmosphere to faze Guzan. The 24-year-old knows how to step up from an understudy role. At Aston Villa in the Premiership, Guzan backs up legendary Yank Brad Friedel, and he spelled the veteran admirably in a UEFA Cup home-and-home with CSKA Moscow last month, allowing three goals and saving 10 shots in a draw and a loss. Those pressure-packed games, coupled with two starts in last year's World Cup qualifiers and valuable minutes in close losses in Spain and England last year, give Guzan ample reason to believe. "Those matches and just the daily training with Villa are giving me confidence that I can play at this level."
U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley is a believer, too. Bradley coached Guzan at Chivas USA in 2006. Guzan suffered through a rough rookie season the year before, and Bradley sat him for a 19-game stretch to help the keeper regain his bearings. "As a competitor, Brad wasn't happy with the decision, but sure enough, when he got back, he had improved," Bradley says."He's mature, and mentally, he's strong."
Guzan's turnaround was a springboard to last year's transfer to Aston Villa. And that conveniently gives him access to two decorated U.S. national team keepers. "You know it's going to be a hostile environment," Guzan says of El Salvador, "So I talk to Timmy, and I've spoken to Brad [Friedel] a lot, and he's given me insights on what to expect, the little things to prepare for when you go down there, like the weather and the stadium conditions not being the best." He betrays no nerves in the run-up to the match. "These are the games you want to be in," Guzan says. "It's exciting, but I plan on being able to sleep."
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
|U.S. men's schedule
|U.S. vs. El Salvador
San Salvador, El Salvador
9 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360
U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2