For first time in years, U.S. starting goalkeeper job completely up for grabs
LISBON -- Go through each U.S. World Cup team over the past 25-plus years, and there is steady progression of goalkeeping legends. You start with Tony Meola, move on to Kasey Keller, then to Brad Friedel, back to Keller before settling on Tim Howard. Sure, some handoffs were more seamless than others. The Keller/Friedel competition was more like a wrestling match, but there always seemed to be a fairly clear line of succession.
Of course, the U.S. string of either hosting or qualifying for seven straight World Cups has now been broken, and with it the succession line for keepers is looking less clear-cut as well. At 38, this looks to be the end of the line for Howard at the international level. Brad Guzan, who largely split the duties with Howard this cycle, is 33 and still has something left in the tank, though who knows for how long.
So with Guzan not called in for Tuesday's friendly against Portugal, an opportunity beckons for Club Brugge goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, FC Dallas' Jesse Gonzalez, and Bill Hamid, who recently secured a move to Danish side Midtjylland from D.C. United. In some ways, the U.S. has been down this road before, especially when Howard took a yearlong sabbatical from national team commitments after the 2014 World Cup. But it seemed like the U.S. team, regardless of who was in charge, never stopped looking over its collective shoulder at Howard, though Guzan did his bit to challenge.
So this gathering has a different feel to it, especially since the U.S. has 19 months or so until its next competitive fixture. The prospect for a sea change in the goalkeeping department has never been more real. The list of keepers training in Lisbon is by no means exhaustive either, especially with the Columbus Crew's Zack Steffen dazzling in the MLS playoffs.
At 26, Hamid is the oldest of the current group, and has been a pro for eight years now. His move overseas will see him leave his comfort zone after spending his entire professional career with D.C. United.
"I think it's a good thing to step out of the league and see what the European environment is like," he said prior to Sunday's training session. "It's one thing watching it, it's another playing in it. I think it's going to benefit me tremendously as a goalkeeper in terms of growing, in terms of technique, in terms of efficiency, in terms of my all-around play I think it's going to benefit me tremendously."
That process has been taking place for some time now. Early on in Hamid's career he was pegged as a shot-stopper but not someone adept at reading the game. Yet U.S. goalkeeper coach Matt Reis has seen steady progress in that regard.
"Hamid has really come around and knows himself in terms of goalkeeping," said Reis. "It takes a while to be seasoned so to speak, and go through a lot of trials and tribulations. I think no matter what, when you play in games, you learn with experience. That's why you see a lot of these older goalies who do well at an old age because they've seen it all. The guy's coming in saying, 'I've seen this a million times, I know what to do.' I think Hamid has come around on that. I think he's settled into being a top-class goalkeeper."
If anything has held Hamid back it's been injuries. The last two off-seasons have seen him sustain knee injuries that knocked him out of January camps. On Sunday, the topic of Hamid's injury history was met with a curt "I haven't been hurt all year." While it's true the 2017 injury didn't see Hamid miss any game time with his club, and that the even played one match at the Gold Cup, historically the ailments have slowed his ascension within the national team pecking order.
Gonzalez's season proved to be more up and down, coinciding with an FC Dallas free fall in the second half that resulted in FCD failing to reach the postseason. But Gonzalez is viewed as a keeper with tremendous upside, even if his technique is still somewhat raw.
"Gonzalez reminds me of [former L.A. Galaxy goalkeeper} Jaime Penedo in that his technique might not be great, but he finds a way to make saves," said Reis. "The timing and the ability to be in those spots is something you can't teach. You either have it or you don't, and he definitely has it. It's just a matter of technically ironing out a few of those things that aren't perfect and getting better at those day in and day out."
Reis' description conjures up images of a pitcher with awkward mechanics who still baffles the opposition, and therefore is best left alone. So does Reis try to change the way Gonzalez does things, or does he not mess with what's working?
"It's a little bit of both," he said. "I think in a national team setting you can't affect too much change on players. We don't have that much time, but just little things you're trying to remind him of and constantly telling him. It's tough in practice because you're getting there and reacting. You're trying not to think too much. When you overthink things usually bad things happen, so it's a lot of little key reminders to say, 'Hey, watch this.'"
Gonzales indicated that Reis has been working on having the keeper be more adept with the ball at his feet, and the 22-year-old has been spurred by Dallas' late-season flameout.
"It's something that motivates me, knowing that we didn't go through to the playoffs," he said. "It's something [where] I come here and keep working knowing there's always next year, and looking to improve.
Horvath has been dealing with a different kind of challenge. A calendar year that has largely seen him on an upward trajectory flattened out two weeks ago when he was benched by club manager Ivan Leko, even with Club Brugge six points clear at the top of the Jupiler Pro League standings. Now a spot in the lineup that appeared to be his is up for grabs.
"Stuff like this happens in a professional career. You've just got to deal with it and in training work even harder," he said. "I think for me, I'll take it as a bit of a test to make sure my head is okay, that I can handle it and deal with it. I think it's a positive that I can come here to this camp. I can recharge the batteries and get everything out of my head and go back with a clear mind and ready to go."
That levelheaded demeanor is among the attributes that have impressed Reis.
"Horvath is a calm goalkeeper back there," he said. "He's got very good feet. He's long, so he can make a lot of stops. Watching a lot of games in Belgium, he's made a lot of saves to help his team up into first place."
Horvath is the youngest of the bunch, but may have the best chance of playing on Tuesday. Gonzalez's season ended a couple of weeks ago. Hamid was benched at D.C. United for the last month of the campaign as his contract situation saw D.C. look elsewhere. To compensate, Hamid has been training with Preston North End goalkeeper coach Dean Kiely in a bid to stay fit.
Regardless of who plays, Tuesday's match will be the first step in a long journey to see who will the one to take over the goalkeeping position.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.