There aren't many 41-year-olds playing at the highest levels of world soccer, and yet Tottenham Hotspur's U.S. goalkeeper, Brad Friedel, continues defying time and expectations as he engages in what he calls "a friendly competition" with 25-year-old French national team captain Hugo Lloris for the top spot between the posts at Spurs.
The Friedel-or-Lloris question has been an intriguing subplot for fifth-place Spurs since the club bought Lloris from Lyon on the final day of the August transfer window. Manager André Villas-Boas surprised some observers initially (including France coach Didier Deschamps) by sticking with Friedel as his No. 1 in the league while using Lloris in the Europa League. But AVB has alternated the keepers in Tottenham's last three Premier League games, starting Friedel in a historic 3-2 win at Manchester United on Sept. 29 and Lloris in a 2-0 win against Aston Villa on Oct. 7 before switching back to Friedel in a 4-2 loss to league-leading Chelsea on Saturday.
But there has been more planning to all this than you might have expected. Friedel told me Villas-Boas had informed him the day before benching him against Aston Villa that he intended to start him against Chelsea two weeks later. "It was always in his plans to play me against Chelsea, so I knew from that point," Friedel said Saturday. "I think the media over here wanted to make it that it was this big fight between Hugo and myself and the manager, and there was never a big fight. The fact is, Tottenham have been looking for the last year and a half for a long-term No. 1 goalkeeper. I don't think they envisioned what my fitness levels would be at this age, and I sort of surprised myself."
"So we have a competition now. It's healthy, but there's a competition. It's friendly," Friedel continued. "It's going to be a situation where André will choose a team that he feels will win the game on the day, and that's how it'll be from now until the end of the season. I don't think anyone will be 'guaranteed' starts, if you like."
AVB told reporters on Friday that he still considered Friedel his No. 1 goalkeeper.
The decision to go with Lloris against Villa ended Friedel's all-time Premier League record of 310 straight starts, which dated to August 2004. By making that call, Villas-Boas was able to 1) not make it seem like he was punishing Friedel for a mistake, considering he had just won at Manchester United, and 2) give Lloris some time on the field before he played twice for France during the international window.
As for the end of his playing streak, Friedel said he's keeping things in perspective. "When I ended last season and played all the games, I went into the summer sort of half-expecting this year would be when the run would end at some stage," he said. "You never know when it will end. But 310 consecutive games, can I complain? No. I never put myself out on the field in a game just to make that number, and I don't think any manager put me out there because of the number. It's an achievement that I'm proud of, not just because of the number but ultimately because I've kept my form up for this long."
It's expected that Lloris will start in Spurs' Europa League game at Maribor on Thursday, with Friedel back in at Southampton in the league on Sunday.
That said, Friedel was disappointed with the 4-2 home loss to Chelsea on Saturday, in which Spurs couldn't hold on to a 2-1 lead. "We didn't play well in the first half," he said. "Chelsea is obviously playing well right now, but normally when we play teams at White Hart Lane we press them, no matter who it is. We didn't do that in the first half. We had a word at halftime and came out firing in the second half. That was more the real Tottenham."
"Then once we got 2-1 up we sat back again for some reason," he went on. "The problem with Chelsea is if you sit back, their top four players -- [Juan] Mata, [Fernando] Torres, Oscar and [Eden] Hazard -- are very good players who know how to open up defenses. We laid off them again, and that's when they punish you."
These days Tottenham is the closest thing in the Premier League to Team America, with two regular starters in Friedel and midfielder Clint Dempsey, who joined the club during the transfer window. Dempsey entered Villas-Boas' first-choice XI immediately and has started seven straight games in all competitions, scoring the eventual game-winning goal at Manchester United.
"Dempsey's doing really well," Friedel said. "Tottenham's a big club, and the fans expect to play in a certain way, a very attack-minded way. Clint with his ability to score goals will fit into it really well. It takes everybody time to get used to it, but he's done a really good job since he's come. He's played three different positions as well, which was another good reason to sign him because of his versatility."
Yet it's Friedel who's taking versatility to a new level in many ways. His contract ends at the conclusion of this season, and he says he has three options at that point: Sign another contract and continue playing, or retire and start a television analyst career (he has worked for Fox Soccer at the last two Champions League finals), or retire and start coaching. Very few Americans have earned UEFA coaching licenses, and Friedel is currently working on his UEFA B license, spending three hours every Monday and Wednesday in the classroom and on the field coaching. He plans to get the UEFA A coaching license after he completes the B certificate.
"I'm definitely looking at all the possibilities for next season," said Friedel, who lives with his wife and their three kids in a quaint village north of London. Considering he'll be 42 in May, it's a pretty good spot to be in.
• MLS has a decent chance of having four teams advance to the quarterfinals of CONCACAF Champions League when the group stage finales take place from Tuesday to Thursday. Los Angeles and Seattle are already through, while Houston will advance if it avoids a loss to Olimpia on Tuesday. Toronto has the longest odds, needing a big win at Mexican champion Santos Laguna to make the quarters. And Salt Lake will need to win at home against Costa Rica's Herediano by either a 1-0 scoreline or by at least two goals. (The first tiebreaker is head-to-head performance involving the tied teams.)
Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis told me he considers Tuesday's game the biggest one of the season so far for his team. "We think being involved in CONCACAF Champions League is that critical to who we are, what we're about and what we want to be," Kries said. "Obviously there are some financial things at stake as far as salary cap and allocation money that we receive if we can advance in the tournament. That means a lot to us, on top of the fact that we're chasing history. We still want to be the first American team to win this thing [and advance to the FIFA Club World Cup]."
Kreis said the playing status of defender Jámison Olave, who has been dealing with hamstring issues, would be a game-time decision. "I feel pretty positive and confident about where our team is right now," Kreis said. "We're trending in the right direction. For me, we've had five or six good performances in a row. Not all the results have been exactly what we wanted, but I feel like the guys are rounding into good form right now."
As for the MLS playoffs, Salt Lake will meet Seattle in the West semifinals, a rematch of a spirited series won by RSL last year.
• Houston had a good weekend, clinching a berth in the MLS playoffs, and coach Dominic Kinnear said he feels good about his team's chances of advancing in the CCL as well. But he also told me that his team's switch from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 formation won't necessarily be something he sticks with.
"It's gone back and forth a little bit," he said. "It's fashionable to talk about formations, but I don't think it's here to stay. ... The first time we did it, we came off a pretty bad loss to Montreal and felt it would be a good idea to put more people in the middle of the park to be tougher to break down. ... I don't think you want to try and complicate things too much. You want to keep it as simple as possible for the team, and I think the 4-4-2 does that."
• With all the berths in the MLS playoffs now decided, the story of the regular season's last week will be Chris Wondolowski's pursuit of Roy Lassiter's all-time MLS season scoring record of 27 goals. Wondo's goal on Sunday put him within one at 26, and he'll get a chance to go for the record at Portland this weekend.