Brad Guzan is hoping to cement his place as the U.S.'s No. 1 goalkeeper
Brad Guzan's immediate focus may be on Aston Villa's battle to survive in the Premier League, but 2015 also offers the goalkeeper a golden chance to establish himself as a starter on the United States national team.
When ESPN FC caught up with the 30-year-old stopper at Villa's Bodymoor Heath training base, he opened up on a host of topics that provided an insight into a figure who has slowly emerged from the shadows to become a key man for club and country.
ESPN FC: You have spent a chunk of your career as a second-choice keeper with both Villa and the U.S. national team. Are you now ready to take on the lead role for both sides?
Guzan: I believe I am. When I first came to Villa back in 2008 [from MLS], I wasn't ready to be thrown straight into the Premier League. Brad Friedel was the first-choice keeper when I arrived here and he was on a record-breaking run of consecutive games, so I knew what I had signed up for when I agreed to join Villa. What I learned in those first 18 months in England was invaluable, and when my chance to play came, I felt ready for it.
Q: It is a similar story with the U.S. in many ways. You have waited for your chance to replace Tim Howard and now the moment has come. Good things come to those who wait, right?
BG: It seems to be that way. What Tim did at the World Cup last summer was just fantastic. The whole nation got behind him and appreciated that he was putting in some incredible performances, but I feel ready to step into that role now. You have to be professional when you are the backup keeper because if you are not giving everything in the time when you are not in the team, you will not be ready to take your chance when it comes. Hopefully, I have worked hard enough over the years to prove I am worthy of a pick now.
Q: What ambitions should the U.S. have ahead of their next World Cup adventure in Russia 2018?
BG: That tournament seems a long way off, but we have a chance to confirm we are a force on the international stage in the build-up to the event. We want to try and win the Gold Cup this year and secure a place in the Confederations Cup, while the Copa America on home soil in 2016 is a great competition to look forward to. The nation embraced the U.S. team at the World Cup last summer and we have to try and build on that enthusiasm.
Q: Is it true that you started your soccer career as an outfield player?
BG: It is. I was always one of the tallest players in the youth teams I played in, and I guess I was good at heading the ball out and crashing into a few tackles in my role as a defender. I practiced as a keeper and a defender growing up, but I realised I was not good enough to play outfield when I was around 17 and focused on the keeping role. It worked out quite well, I guess!
Q: What are your earliest football memories?
A: It was always my ambition to try and make a career in European soccer, and that may have come from my love of watching Champions League games as a kid. I remember running back from school to catch the last few minutes of the big matches on TV, with the kickoff times meaning the matches finish at the end of school times in America. I always hoped I could have a career here, and I'm delighted that has happened.
Q: You mentioned the rise of popularity in soccer in America last summer. Can that be sustained and built upon moving forward?
BG: Without a doubt. The rise of MLS will help to maintain the interest of the game back home, and I think people in America appreciate soccer more than they ever did in the past now. The sport is popular among a wide section of the community and in large areas of the country, which wasn't always the case in the past. There is a real buzz around the sport, and especially the national team. I believe that the sport of soccer is on the cusp of exploding in America, and that is a great prospect for everyone involved.
Q: Can MLS start to establish itself as one of the leading leagues in the game?
BG: I think we are some way from that dream becoming a reality, but the strides forward taken by MLS in recent years have been great to see. David Beckham going over to L.A. Galaxy was the breakthrough moment, and he did more than anyone to make soccer big news in America. Since then, we have seen Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and now Steven Gerrard follow that lead, but there is still a long way to go.
Q: What needs to happen to take MLS to the next level?
BG: We are still in a situation where every team has two or three top players and the rest may not be a different level. It is a credit to guys like Beckham, Clint Dempsey and the rest [of the stars in the league] that they have played in MLS, because these guys are on a different platform compared to a majority of their teammates, but the model the league promotes and the chances it gives to American players is great for the development of our sport. I believe more and more top players will look to move to MLS in the coming years, and not just because of the financial rewards on offer.
Q: Will you finish your career in MLS?
BG: I would like to do that, but hopefully I have plenty more years at Villa before I think about heading home. My wife and I have been very happy in England over the last few years, and while we miss aspects of home, we are enjoying our life here. Our first child is on the way in April, so he or she will be English-born and that means our family will always have a special bond with this country.
Q: How you concerned are you with Aston Villa's form heading into the final third of the Premier League season?
BG: We need to start getting results, that is obvious, but I feel we have the quality and the spirit to do just that. Clearly we need to score a few more goals, but the performances have not been so bad for much of this season. We have been creating chances and not quite putting them away. If we put that right, we can climb up the table very quickly. The quality in this league is such that every game sees you come up against players that have world-class ability, and they can always hurt you. That is the challenge of being in the Premier League, and personally, I relish it.
Kevin Palmer is a sports writer. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealKevinPalmer.