Life between the posts is lonely. Cut off from your team-mates, you watch as most of the joy comes at the other end of the pitch. You celebrate the goals alone. And the life of a back-up goalkeeper is even lonelier, as USA’s Brad Guzan knows first-hand.
“I spent four years waiting for my chance, and those were trying and testing times,” he told FIFA.com, thinking back to his arrival in 2008 at Birmingham-based Premier League outfit Aston Villa. He spent season after season as understudy to either American compatriot Brad Friedel or Irish stalwart Shay Given.
“In those four years I wasn’t playing, but I was learning,” he added, his perspective clearly positive. “You just have to be ready, because football is a cut-throat thing and if you don’t take your chance when it comes, someone else will."
Guzan’s chance came. At the start of this season, new manager Paul Lambert saw the quality of his brawny American. Relegation-threatened Villa have suffered through countless injuries and have shipped a huge amount of goals, but Guzan – formerly of Major League Soccer outfits Chicago Fire and Chivas USA – has been superb.
“Brad’s been magnificent,” said Lambert, who knows if Villa survive demotion this term it might just be down to Guzan's heroics. “I wouldn’t want anyone else.”
Long USA wait ends
Now, at the peak of his professional career, Guzan is getting another chance. A pair of fractured ribs for long-time USA No1 Tim Howard means it’s Guzan’s time to step into the limelight for his country, at the age of 28.
“You never want to see one of your team-mates get hurt, and I hope Tim gets well fast, but this is sport and these things happen,” he said from his hotel room in Denver, Colorado, where he will line up against Costa Rica on Friday. “Now’s the time for me to step up.”
Jurgen Klinsmann’s side struggled in their Hexagonal opener last month, losing 2-1 away to Honduras. And though Guzan is clear to say it’s nowhere near crisis time, he does see this first home game as important.
As a goalkeeper, you can’t chase the game or get overexcited. You have to let the game come to you and be ready to make the big save, whether it’s in the first minute or the 90th.
This is a chance to put things right and to show what we can do,” remarked the 6ft-4-ins shot-stopper, preparing for his first taste of the notoriously tricky Hexagonal.
“My job is to keep the ball out of the net,” he said when asked what he can do to help the team get back on track, stressing the need for a goalkeeper to keep a mental distance and discipline. “As a goalkeeper, you can’t chase the game or get overexcited. You have to let the game come to you and be ready to make the big save, whether it’s in the first minute or the 90th.”
These are all part of the lessons Guzan has learned in line behind some of the world’s best keepers, the likes of Given and Friedel, and Tim Howard. “Good goalkeepers put the last loss and the last goal behind them fast,” he said. “You have to be mentally tough and forget the mistakes right away, otherwise those mistakes will control you.”
Guzan insists he is “excited, not nervous” about his chance on the big stage, and in fairness it won’t be his first time pulling on a Stars and Stripes jersey. He has 20 caps to his name, including one in a crucial 3-0 win over Egypt at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009. He was also first-choice keeper at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008.
“You can’t let nerves in, they can’t help,” he said. “This is a chance for me to use what I’ve learned in the last months in England.
“These are the games you want to play in,” he said with excitement in his voice. When asked whether he fears Costa Rica’s England-based creator Bryan Ruiz or their rampaging striker Alvaro Saborio, who is in the form of his life, Guzan is predictably calm: “I’ve watched some film of them, but you can’t get carried away doing that, it will only bring you too far into your own head.”
Four days after the Costa Rica contest, Guzan and Co travel to arch-rivals Mexico, where he will face another first – his first taste of action at the much-feared Estadio Azteca. “I was on the bench there once,” he said. “So I know what it sounds like.”
Not surprisingly, Guzan’s not worried; the waiting, watching and learning have left him confident and prepared: “We know it’s hostile there, but these are the big games you want to be a part of."