Between his shaved head and his near-decade as a member of the U.S. men's national soccer team, goalkeeper Brad Guzan seems more likely to play the role of grizzled veteran than hungry rookie in this year's CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Yet given his history as the perpetual backup to Tim Howard, the 30-year-old Guzan is hoping to show he is more than capable of continuing a strong tradition in the net.
So far, Guzan has been one of the more consistent members of an unbeaten U.S. team (2-0-1) that won its group despite less-than-impressive preliminary-round performances and will play Saturday in the tournament's quarterfinals at M&T Bank Stadium.
With Howard, 36, taking a one-year break from the team, Guzan has emerged as the potential No. 1 keeper for Team USA as it gets ready for the long road it hopes will lead to Russia both for the 2017 Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup.
Guzan understands that his performance this summer is being judged in comparison to Howard, who nearly singlehandedly kept the United States competitive last summer at the World Cup in Brazil. Howard started a majority of his 86 national team appearances since 2007. Brad Friedel was a mainstay in goal for most of his 82 games between 1992 and 2005.
“For me, it's always been about wanting to play and trying to help the team in whatever way you can,” Guzan said in a telephone interview Sunday. “This is obviously a time when I have the support of the coach, but I have to go out and do my job as a goalkeeper and that's to hopefully make saves and give the guys in front of me a chance to go and win the game.”
It marks the first time since Guzan was invited to his inaugural national team camp in 2006 that he is considered the team's top goalkeeper. A former Major League Soccer Goalkeeper of the Year (in 2007 with Chivas USA), Guzan concedes that the long wait to be the starter had tested him.
“When you're with the national team, obviously it's an honor to be a part of it,” Guzan said. “But at the same time we all want to play. As professional athletes and professional soccer players, you just don't want to be a spectator.
“You want to be a guy on the field that's making a difference in terms of playing games and helping the team win. … Obviously being the No. 1 for a tournament like this, it's exciting.”
Considering how sloppily the U.S. team has played at times in narrow victories over Honduras (2-1) and Haiti (1-0) last week as well as in a 1-1 draw with Panama on Monday night, Guzan has seen quite a bit of excitement unfolding in front of him.
Though the U.S. team had clinched its spot in the quarterfinals before the game against Panama, Guzan helped keep the Americans unbeaten by kicking away a potential own goal by teammate Chris Wondolowski in the 10th minute and by making a sprawling stop on Panama's Miguel Camargo in the 75th minute. Russell Payne, the former Maryland goalkeeper and assistant whom U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann brought in earlier this year to serve as the team's goalie coach, said Tuesday night that Guzan's personality has served well as a longtime backup and now as a starter.
“Brad has all the right attributes. Psychologically he's extremely tough and he's extremely diligent and persistent in his work,” Payne said.
Guzan acknowledges feeling a different kind of pressure playing for a U.S. team that is one of the favorites in the Gold Cup than he does in his regular gig with Aston Villa, an English Premier League team that has barely survived relegation to a lower division nearly every year since Guzan joined it in 2011. Aston Villa finished one spot above relegation last season.
“When you're battling relegation, it's more than just the players that are affected — it's the stewards at the stadium, it's the people at the training ground that will lose jobs, there's a different kind of pressure. You're not playing for yourself, you're playing for other people's jobs as well,” Guzan said.
“When you're with the national team and you're expected to win these type of games … it becomes a different pressure. You have to go in and win the game, you're expected to win the game, you're expected to play well. When you don't play well, everyone seems to be an expert from the outside looking in.”
Payne, who is also the head coach at Army, said Guzan has the kind of fortitude to deal with that type of scrutiny.
“He's a humble guy, he's never afraid to learn and discuss ideas with others, coaches and teammates,” Payne said. “I think he shows those ... leadership qualities where he's not afraid to step forward and be accountable and help others account for themselves. He's definitely one of the good ones.”
Despite a rough year in the Premier League, when he was benched during the team's unexpected run toward the FA Cup final after starting all 33 regular-season games, Guzan expects to return to Aston Villa later this summer and hopes to be on the field when the U.S. team starts playing World Cup qualifying games later this year.
Guzan, who will turn 31 in September, thinks he is just getting started as a starter on the U.S. team.
“There are goalkeepers that play into their 40s, and I'm only 30,” he said. “My goal is to take each year as it comes. I feel good. I can't tell you how I'm going to feel in 2018. My focus is on obviously winning this Gold Cup and taking the qualifiers as they come, and hopefully help us qualify for the World Cup. I'm not looking too far down the line because in soccer that's a long time.”