The U.S. has two big World Cup qualifiers starting a week from Friday, but the injury news of late has been disturbing for American soccer fans, including Tim Howard (likely out), Clint Dempsey (questionable), Steve Cherundolo (out), Fabian Johnson (questionable) and Edgar Castillo (out). (And that discussion doesn't address Landon Donovan, who's on sabbatical, and Carlos Bocanegra, who hasn't played at club level in a month.)
The severity of Howard's injury was only made public late Friday, when Everton revealed the U.S. keeper had broken two bones in his back during a recent game against Oldham. Howard could be out several weeks, which means it's very likely that we'll see Aston Villa's Brad Guzan in his place on March 22 against Costa Rica (in Commerce City, Colo., near Denver) and March 26 at Mexico.
When I reached Guzan by phone Saturday, he first expressed his hope that Howard has a speedy recovery, but Guzan also sounded confident about getting the chance to play in two important qualifiers.
"If my name is called and I am the person to play, then I'll definitely be ready to help the cause and get the guys ready to go, that's for sure," Guzan said.
Howard's absence would have been a bigger concern a year ago, when Guzan was in his fourth season of earning scant playing time in England. But the former Chivas USA keeper has been the first choice nearly all season at Villa, starting 27 Premier League games and often impressing as the team's best player during its relegation battle. In fact, Guzan had started closing the gap a bit on Howard as the U.S. No. 1 even before Howard's injury.
Guzan has played in some important games for the U.S., though they were four years ago. In 2009, he was in goal for the U.S.' 3-0 Confederations Cup win against Egypt, a miraculous result that (combined with Italy's 3-0 loss to Brazil) sent the U.S. to the semifinals. Earlier that year, Guzan also played in a 2-2 World Cup qualifying tie at El Salvador.
"[Egypt] was definitely an important game, not only for us but for me as well," Guzan said. "I didn't have too much to do in that game, one or two saves, but keeping a clean sheet was helpful in getting through to the next round. If you look at the line of goalkeepers the U.S. has had, it's not always easy to get a game. Tim Howard has been fantastic for so long and very consistent, so sometimes it's difficult. But I've had a chance to represent my country in big games."
Given Guzan's form as the No. 1 at Villa, it was surprising to hear some calls for Tottenham's Brad Friedel to come out of his international retirement and be the U.S. starter in the wake of Howard's injury. When I spoke to Friedel on Saturday, he voiced his support for Guzan but added that he would be willing to help out in an emergency if Guzan were to be injured for these U.S. games. (Friedel will be in Las Vegas during the international break for a promotional event with Under Armour, so he won't be far from Denver.)
Guzan is used to pressure-packed games these days -- Aston Villa got a big three points at Reading on Saturday -- and that trend will only continue with the U.S. qualifiers, especially after a loss at Honduras last month to open the Hexagonal.
"There's no sugarcoating it: We need to go into Denver and get three points," said Guzan of the U.S., the only team in the Hex without a point. "Then we go on to Mexico, where everyone knows it's a tough place to go. But we have to be confident in our ability and what we're about as a team and try to get a good result as well."
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Guzan will be organizing a U.S. back-line corps that isn't familiar with each other. Geoff Cameron and Omar González, the likely starting center backs, played together for the first time in the loss at Honduras, and it showed. If Howard (who was wearing the captain's armband) had problems communicating with them, how tough will it be for Guzan? (For that matter, who will wear the U.S. armband this time? Michael Bradley? Jermaine Jones?)
Guzan will have the advantage of four training days with the U.S. back line before the Costa Rica game, as opposed to one day the team had last month. And if things go well for Guzan? If he ends up starting as expected, does he see these games as a chance to make his case for the No. 1 job?
"For Tim and myself and the other goalkeepers, there's a respect for what goes into being a goalkeeper," Guzan said. "There's only one of us that can play each game. It's similar in a club situation. I've been on both ends of that. For four years I wasn't the guy to be called upon, and recently I have been. With Tim and the other guys, we've developed a good working relationship. With the national team, you try to push each other in the few trainings you have and make your case that you want to be called to help the team. You try to help the guy next to you get better, because ultimately it's for the greater cause, and that's to help the team. With goalkeepers, you create a special working environment. It's almost its own team within a team, if that makes sense."
? I spoke to someone who spent time with Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo after the Manchester United-Real Madrid game Tuesday, and Ronaldo was extremely emotional about his return to Old Trafford. The Portuguese star spent 30 minutes in the United locker room with his old teammates after the game, and he told friends it was the most emotional day he has ever had on a soccer field. United fans gave Ronaldo a standing ovation before the game, and he most definitely returned the sentiment.
? Portland's Darlington Nagbe has gotten off to a good start in MLS, and the Liberian-born midfielder said he's definitely interested in playing for the U.S. once he becomes a U.S. citizen. Nagbe, 22, said it will take two or three years to get his citizenship, but that's faster than the five years it would have taken had he not married a U.S. citizen recently. Nagbe said he has already turned down interest from Liberia, including from George Weah, a former teammate of Nagbe's father, Joe.
? Vancouver captain Jay DeMerit is out for six to eight months after rupturing an Achilles last week. It was a reminder that taking injections is still a risky move in sports. DeMerit had missed much of the preseason with heel problems and said he took a prolo injection to try and be ready for the opener. He'd taken them before for other ailments, and he was told he could play through the pain. But DeMerit only lasted seven minutes last week before the Achilles ruptured, and he underwent surgery two days later.
? World Cup 2022 in Qatar has been in the news again, with UEFA president Michel Platini saying in stronger terms than ever that the event should be moved to the winter months to protect the players. Meanwhile, FIFA president Sepp Blatter has said the event should continue being in the summer months. From a U.S. perspective, having the World Cup during the NFL playoffs would certainly be a problem. But contrary to reports in Europe, I'm told the U.S. Soccer Federation will not file a lawsuit against FIFA if that World Cup is moved to the winter. You'll remember the U.S. controversially lost to Qatar in the final-round vote in 2010.
? I'll predict it right here: The first American to get an important coaching job in Europe will be Brad Friedel. The Spurs keeper recently extended his contract one more season to play, but he also has earned his UEFA B coaching license and is set to complete his A license in June 2014. Spurs is on track to earn a spot in the Champions League next season, and Friedel said he thinks it's a "100 percent" chance Tottenham will keep star Gareth Bale if the team qualifies.
Friedel also gave credit to manager André Villas-Boas for his management of the personalities on the team, as well as the freedom he has given Bale to play in different positions.
"Whatever perceptions people had from his time at Chelsea, they were either wrong, or he learned from his time at Chelsea," Friedel said. "From day one he's had an open-door policy. We obviously have a wealth of talent in the squad, and he's had to rotate the squad at times. He's done a very good job of communicating that, and keeping players on their toes but also giving them their ample opportunity as well."
? This week's movie rec: