"I don't have any secrets about the English players," USA No1 Tim Howard told FIFA.com recently. "But it's not like anything will be a surprise out there against them either."
The New York-born net-minder, formerly of Manchester United and currently with Everton, is just one-third of the wholly Premier League-based goalkeeping crew for the Stars and Stripes here at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Having spent seven seasons in what is considered by many to be the best league in the world, Howard's familiarity with the English players – all 23 of whom play in the Premiership – will be considerable when his United States line up against England in Rustenburg for the mouth-watering Group C opener.
Howard, 31, recently called former United team-mate Wayne Rooney, his likely tormenter this Saturday, the best striker in the world. The acrobatic former MLS standout is sure to be coach Bob Bradley’s first choice between the sticks, and he is just the latest in a long line of outstanding American goalkeepers, most of whom have also spent time playing in England.
Kasey Keller, who wore the No1 jersey for the Americans 12 years ago at France 1998 and last time out in Germany, was actually based in the Bundesliga with Borussia Monchengladbach in 2006, but in all spent well over a decade in English football with Millwall, Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham. Brad Friedel, now at Aston Villa, was with Blackburn Rovers when he shone for the US at Korea/Japan 2002 where the Americans shocked Mexico and reached the quarter-finals.
Indeed you have to go back fully 16 years to 1994, when the USA hosted the world finals, to find the last American goalkeeper with no club connection to England. Since Tony Meola – then of the Buffalo Blizzard indoor soccer outfit and resplendent in his shiny jerseys and mullet hairstyle – it has been England-based keepers minding the American nets on the world stage.
They are very potent and very aggressive. We’re going to have our work cut out.
Howard is not alone as the only goalkeeper in the current USA side to earn his wages in England's top flight. The towering Brad Guzan is currently understudy to countryman Friedel at Villa Park, while third choice Marcus Hahnemann spent over ten seasons with Reading and Fulham before featuring for Wolves last term. You might be tempted to think there is a secret to this American goalkeeping pipeline into the Premier League, especially as it has proven a difficult trick for the country's outfield players (only three of USA's non-keepers play in England's elite league). But Guzan, who started for the USA at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, is not sold on the idea.
"I'm not sure really if there's any kind of secret or anything," the former Chivas USA man told FIFA.com, with a beaming smile after USA's 3-1 friendly win over Australia last weekend. "It's just kind of worked out like that, with European clubs and coaches seeing something special in American goalkeepers. I wish I knew what the secret was, but it's just one of those things."
Perhaps it is the propensity for American youngsters to grow up playing games like basketball, baseball and gridiron with their hands that has aided in the development of a long line of greats between the pipes, as Meola himself once said. But again Guzan – mind sharp and with all due respect to the legendary trailblazer – puts the brakes on any easy theorising. "Over in England they have cricket which is a lot like our baseball, and rugby too, so it's not exactly a scientific thing. There's no formula that I can figure out."
Whatever the secret, it will allow Howard an intimate knowledge of his opponents in Rustenburg, the same venue where the Americans beat Egypt en route to the final of last year's FIFA Confederations Cup. However, such familiarity is not exactly a comfort to the man. "There's a lot to fear in this English attack," he said, referring to the likes of Rooney, Peter Crouch and midfield threats Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, ahead of this repeat of the famous 1950 FIFA World Cup meeting, when the Americans pulled off quite a shock with a 1-0 win in Belo Horizonte. "They are very potent and very aggressive. We're going to have our work cut out."