The U.S. keeps producing top goalkeepers, the latest being Tim Howard, in a line that stretches back to Kasey Keller. England continues to struggle at the position.
With every save, every deflection last season, Tim Howard set off waves of angst and anxiety that rippled clear across the ocean.
England might have some of the biggest names in soccer, a star-studded lineup that gives the Three Lions their best hope of winning the World Cup since 1966. But there’s one gaping hole in the roster, and it became all the more glaring after England drew the Americans for its World Cup opener Saturday in Rustenburg, South Africa.
The United States, you see, might still lag behind the world’s powerhouses in field players. But it’s been cranking out top-notch goalkeepers for two decades, and Howard, who plays for Everton in the English Premier League, is one of its best.
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England, meanwhile, is resigned to a guy whose frequent miscues have earned him the nickname “Calamity.”
“It’s very frustrating, more than anything,” said Peter Shilton, England’s last great goalkeeper. “We have the ability to go out there and it not be a problem. But it is still a little bit.”
There are many reasons why the Americans have produced first-class goalkeepers lately, while England, the country that invented the game, has struggled.
The United States has an edge in sheer numbers, with a population of more than 309 million, about 75 million of whom are children. The country simply produces good athletes, Howard said.
Whether it’s basketball, football, baseball, soccer or some other activity, most kids are raised playing something. Often, more than one thing.
“If you look at the best ones in the world — (Italy’s Gianluigi) Buffon, (Spain’s Iker) Casillas and all the top goalkeepers — they’re athletic,” Howard said. “They’re good at different things, but that’s what really stands out. They’re over-athletic. And I think that’s what helps us.”
Playing keeper isn’t considered a punishment in the United States, either, or a place to hide the worst player. Quite the contrary.
While field players are finding more opportunities in Europe, it’s American goalkeepers who’ve had the most visible success overseas. Americans started at three of the 20 EPL teams last year, and Brad Guzan was Brad Friedel’s backup at Aston Villa.
Friedel holds the Premier League record for continuous games played (he’s at 228 and counting). Sounders FC goalkeeper Kasey Keller spent 17 years with the top leagues in England, Spain and Germany before returning home.
“The goalkeeper position in this country is a more sought-after position,” said Marcus Hahnemann, who grew up in the Seattle area and played at Seattle Pacific, then with the A-League Sounders from 1994-97. He recently signed for a second season at Wolverhampton. “People want to play in goal, where in England, they used to go, ‘Oh, the worst player, stick him in goal.’
“You watch ice hockey, as soon as the game’s over, everyone goes over to the (goalie) and pats him on the head. That’s the sort of attitude I think you have toward keepers in this country. I think that helps.”
AP writer Ronald Blum contributed to this article.