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English football has certainly taken its share of abuse lately. Whether it’s the sad state of youth development, star players’ inability to perform in the national team jersey or a crisis of confidence of some sort, pundits everywhere (but mostly in the U.K.) have been coming down with righteous indication usually reserved for sex offenders or the royal family.
Might as well join in, then. After all, it’s fun kicking somebody when they’re down, innit?
Not sure to what lengths this has been discussed, but methinks a lot of England’s problems (on the pitch. Let’s not get into the other stuff) comes down to the state of its goalkeeping. England goalkeepers are, frankly, not very good at all. We all know about Paul Robinson’s lack of form and Scott Carson’s blunders in the Croatia game, but sadly these were not isolated incidents. England simply does not have any quality goalkeepers to call on.
Just how bad is it? Fabio Capello started 21-year old Joe Hart in England last time. Don’t get me wrong, Hart appears to have some talent and may become a very decent goalkeeper at some point (like, seven-10 years from now, when players at his position normally start to peak) but in the near term I don’t see how he can inspire confidence. Hart’s biggest competition appears to come from Ben Foster, who doesn’t even hold down a starting job in the Premiership. Then you’ve got Robert “I’m underpaid” Green, David James and the aforementioned Robinson and Carson. And Peter Shilton, who is said to be considering a comeback. No, not really, though he may be a better option than anybody else at this point.
No surprise then, that Premiership teams are stocking their rosters with non-English goalkeepers. Due to the nature of the position, these players need to be able to communicate verbally with their teammates, which requires at least a working knowledge of the English language. So Scottish goalkeepers are out of the question then. But Ireland and Wales have been good sources of talent for Premiership sides as have Scandinavian countries, whose inhabitants are known to speak better English than just about anybody. And Americans, who speak something vaguely resembling English but generally have no problem picking up the local patois (witness Brad Friedel, for example).
This is where Aston Villa enters the picture. Martin O’Neill’s side is said to have agreed terms with Friedel, who at one point (circa 2002) could rightfully claim to be one of the very best in the entire world at his position. When was the last time you could say that about an English goalkeeper? But Friedel, who long ago retired from international competition, is only one of many stellar Yank netminders. Say what you want about U.S. <strike>soccer</strike>football (yes, you beat us at Wembley a few months ago and no, it wasn’t even close) this is one position–the only one, come to think of it–where we are absolutely stacked.
No fewer than four (4) Yank goalkeepers started for Premiership sides last season; Tim Howard (Everton), Marcus Hahnemann (Reading), Kasey Keller (Fulham) and Friedel. We also have starting keepers in the top leagues in France, Sweden, Norway and Denmark and in Germany’s second division. We could probably fill five high-level international teams with our goalkeepers (but they wouldn’t have anybody to play with. Oh well).
Villa are apparently so enamored with Yank goalies they’ve structured their entire team around them. Friedel will only be there for a year or two before he becomes too old for the job (at least on a full-time basis). Serving as his understudy is Brad Guzan, who until very recently plied his trade for Chivas USA in Major League Soccer and will be the starting U.S. goalkeeper in the Beijing Olympics. O’Neill signed Guzan earlier this summer, pending a work permit for the soon-to-be 24 year old.
O’Neill’s move of signing both first- and second-string Yank goalkeepers is, of course, unprecedented. And yet, it hasn’t really raised any eyebrows over there. A lot of that is surely due to the respect O’Neil has earned as an arbiter of talent, but moreover, it simply makes sense: England goalkeepers are crap, American ones aren’t, and bringing in somebody from Europe is sure to be expensive and risky (if he doesn’t speak English). That, and Brits don’t really like poking fun at people, least of all Americans.
As for Guzan, he’s probably not even the best young Yank goalkeeper at present (that honor I think goes to 21-year old Chris Seitz, currently of Real Salt Lake in MLS. Seitz will back up Guzan at the Olympics). In fact, I have always thought Guzan was a bit limited; a solid shot-stopper, for sure, but not terribly mobile, suspect on crosses and lacking the innate sense of authority often required of his position. Then again, they said the same things about Friedel. Guzan will learn from the best. Villa fans: your goals are in safe hands.