With the news of the final Copa America roster being released, United States manager/technical director/yoga instructor Jurgen Klinsmann also announced Brad Guzan as the #1 U.S. goalkeeper for the tournament. This ended an extended period of uncharacteristic indecision for the U.S. at the position, as the Committee of Brad Guzan and Tim Howard have tended the goal in tandem for much of the past year, with some brief cameos from Nick Rimando, David Bingham, Luis Robles, and William Yarbrough. Naming an outright starting keeper is a good decision, I think, and having a firm #1 choice will help the defense congeal a bit more and, hopefully, allow for a stronger defense.
The only problem? Klinsmann named the wrong starter. And the right starter's name isn't Tim Howard.
Howard's backup status should be pretty unquestionable at this point. He's played two club matches since January, and his appearances with the National team have been serviceable, but not up to his standards from just a couple years ago. He's 37 years old, and he's just at that "Brad Friedel" point in his career: his physical skills are naturally waning, and it's about time he took the backseat and helped the younger guys move up.
Brad Guzan, however, isn't a real step up from Tim Howard. His performances with the U.S. have been no better than Howard's, and his club situation even worse. He lost his job (which he eventually regained) on a historically poor Aston Villa side this season. And while he showed brief glimpses of his initial promise as an international-caliber goalkeeper this season, his inconsistent and flat-out bad performances won him no fans in the Midlands. 7500 to Holte summed up Guzan's play in this delightful retrospective regarding Brad and his transfer options:
...as much as I'd like to see Brad go, he owes Villa fans for his performances and if a team comes in for him, any team, he should take the opportunity and leave. Guzan should thank his lucky stars that someone wants him.
That article goes on to describe Guzan as "a goalkeeper so bereft of confidence that a prescription seems to be in order." Now ask yourself: do you really want this man between the sticks for the U.S.? Guzan is already 31, still in his prime for a goalkeeper but most likely on the downward side of his career and development arc. Even if his play is usually passable for the U.S., passable just isn't good enough for a team that has always relied heavily on its star goalkeepers to keep them in games.
Normally, the alternative to Guzan and Howard would be Bill Hamid, and he certainly fit the bill last season, single-handedly keeping D.C. United in game after game with his heroics. But Hamid has been on the shelf all season, and just returned to full training this week. This has left the door open for an intriguing option for Klinsmann's third choice keeper: Ethan Horvath.
Horvath was a surprise when this roster was announced, despite his pedigree and talent. At only 20, Horvath has become the #1 shot-stopper for Molde in the Norwegian Tippeligaen, and already has experience in the Europa League and the Champions League. He was named man of the match against no less than Dutch titan Ajax in September after his point-blank reaction saves rescued a point for Molde.
Horvath's form continued with the U.S. U-23s, cleaning mistakes from a sloppy defense and allowing a clearly inferior American side to make Colombia sweat a bit before the South Americans secured the two-legged contest 3-2. Horvath seemed destined to duke it out with Zack Steffen, a keeper with a similar penchant for heroics currently on the books at SC Freiburg in Germany, for the U.S. #1 spot in a few years.
But Bill Hamid's injury and Horvath's subsequent form at both the club and youth international level opened the door for him to make Klinsmann's final Copa America roster. Now, with an aging Tim Howard and lackluster Brad Guzan in front of him, is the time for Ethan Horvath. He's young, still inexperienced at the international level, and he's never played a game with the senior national team. And that's exactly why Klinsmann should start him.
Klinsmann starting Horvath will not be keeping some vastly better option out of the goal. Guzan and Howard have not been good. They just haven't. Maybe Guzan kicks it back into high gear this summer, but after a bad Gold cup and worse Premier League season with Aston Villa, my hopes aren't high. Tim Howard will join the Colorado Rapids after the Copa, where he will most likely be given the starting job, but will also most likely be under duress for the #1 spot from Zach MacMath, who has been very good for a Rapids team leading the Supporter's Shield standings on the back of 5 clean sheets, Guzan and Howard may have more experience, but their play has not backed up Klinsmann's continued trust in them in the least.
Horvath's inclusion would also be the only beneficial outcome for him this summer, as he loses games with Molde just by being with the National team. Norway, like the rest of Scandinavia, plays through the summer, and do not take a break for the Copa America, as they already have to for the Euros. The Centenario is a special edition of the tournament, and the winner may or may not be considered the champion of South America. For Horvath to miss out on nearly a month's worth of competitive games to sit on the bench for the U.S. does him and the U.S. team no real favors.
Finally, there's the big bottom line for Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer. Starting Horvath is obviously a risk. If Guzan tanks, well, that's just the state of the Keeper pool. If Horvath plays and screws up, that's a blown coaching decision. But do we really think Klinsmann's job will be threatened by a poor showing in a bonus tournament with a group this U.S. team will already have a headache getting out of? Klinsmann's contract runs through 2018, and USSF has never been one to admit fault. Klinsmann's job is secure until Russia, barring complete and utter disaster, and he's got plenty of room to tinker. I know international play is about results and not development. But in a tournament that's fairly low-stakes, on a team where nothing is really expected, the move's risk is substantially mitigated.
Is this argument a bit of devil's advocate? Obviously. I don't expect Horvath to get any minutes in the Copa America proper. He might grab half a game of action in the next two friendlies, and most people will probably mildly applaud him for making his debut at a young age. But for a man who was hailed as a risk-taker, Klinsmann has been positively conservative in his goalkeeper selection. Guzan and Howard have become miniature metaphors for the state of the USMNT over the past year, devoid of confidence, stability, or consistency, and their continued inclusion in the lineup isn't winning any points for the Stars and Stripes. Howard won't return to his 2014 form. Guzan needs a real shot across the bow. And Ethan Horvath should be the one who does it.