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Brad Guzan bets on himself, seizes long-awaited chance as USMNT No. 1

QUINCY, Mass. – Brad Guzan said he remembers the details “like it was yesterday,” and he tells the story of the moment three years ago when he bet big on himself as if it really did just happen. He recalls what was said, how he felt and the granular details of his quick but crucial trip to Birmingham, England—including the time of day he sat down with new Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert to talk about his future.

Guzan was 27 years old in the summer of 2012. He was entering a goalkeeper’s prime but had started just seven Premier League games during his first four seasons at the club. He was at a crossroads, pegged by many back in the U.S. as the next great American goalkeeper but still unable to break through for club or country. His career had stagnated, and few would have blamed the Chicagoland native if he never wanted to step foot in Britain’s “Second City” again.

Instead, Guzan rushed back.

“It was on a Monday afternoon when I had the conversation with [Lambert] on the phone. On Tuesday afternoon, I booked a flight form Chicago to London. Landed Wednesday morning, drove two hours up to Birmingham to the training ground, met with the manager at 11 o’clock or so,” Guzan recounted to outside Boston, where he was preparing for his second CONCACAF Gold Cup match as the U.S. national team’s undisputed No. 1. “Met with him from 11 to around 1, got back in the car, two hours back down to Heathrow, back on the plane and was home for dinner in Chicago Wednesday night.”

Although he felt somewhat marginalized by previous coaches (Brad Friedel’s presence notwithstanding), Guzan remained loyal to Villa in part because the club was undeterred during its lengthy 2008 pursuit of his U.K. work permit. Perhaps more importantly, Guzan was unwilling to retreat. Despite a lack of playing time, he remained certain he could thrive in the Premier League. Rather than sign with a smaller club where minutes might be certain, he asked Lambert only for a clean slate. Guzan would fill in the blanks.

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“That everyone starts fresh and everyone is going to be given a fair opportunity. That’s what I needed,” Guzan said when asked what he was looking to hear that day at Bodymoor Heath. “Years previous to that, I don’t feel I had a fair shake at things and all I wanted was a fresh opportunity and a fresh chance … I back myself. I trust in my ability. I believe in myself. Not in a cocky way, but in a confident way. I know I can play at the top level.”

Guzan signed a new contract, started 37 of 38 league games and was named Villa’s player of the season. The following summer, he inked an extension. Guzan bet on himself, and he won. Naturally, he remembers the particulars.

Broad shouldered and standing an imposing 6'4", Guzan is built like a prototypical goalkeeper but didn’t embrace the position until arriving at the University of South Carolina. He’d played in net at the ODP level but at his youth club, the Chicago Magic, he preferred midfield. He may have had an early urge to kick and run, but learning to think like a goalie came a bit more naturally. A unique position demands unique perspective. Playing time is at a premium. For the third-best attacker or defender, there’s probably still a starting role available. For goalies, it’s one at a time. And mistakes are magnified.

“When you make a mistake, it normally results in a goal. You’re on the ‘Not Top 10’ or you’re the butt of the joke. It’s not great. That comes with it and you have to toughen up very quickly, and I’ve learned that if you’re not going to be able to shake things off and get on with making a mistake here or there, you’re not going to survive,” Guzan explained. “It’s a different mentality. You have to have thick skin. You have to learn to be able to deal with things and move on from things and for me that was probably, and to a certain extent still is, one of the biggest aspects of goalkeeping.”

Doubt can creep in, not only when there’s a ball behind you, but when there always seems to be another goalie ahead. Guzan eventually established himself as the No. 1 at Villa Park in 2012 but with the U.S. national team, the wait was longer. He made his senior debut back in 2006, was part of the squad that claimed the 2007 Gold Cup title and started at the Olympics the following summer in Beijing. At the same time, he was backstopping Chivas USA to the MLS playoffs.

But as Kasey Keller left the stage, Tim Howard stepped into the spotlight. And there he remained, through the ’09 Confederations Cup, the ’11 Gold Cup (which Guzan missed while getting married) and the ’10 and ’14 World Cups. Guzan would be named to the team, travel and train and then stay on the bench as Howard took his place between the posts. Prior to this Gold Cup, Guzan started only two tournament games for the senior national team—a dead rubber 1-0 loss to Colombia at the ‘07 Copa América and the 3-0 win over Egypt at the Confederations Cup.

He had no choice but to practice as if he was going to play.

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“There are probably a select few players in the world, on one hand you could count them, that can literally flip a switch and say, ‘You know what? Today I’m going to turn it on.’ I’m not one of those players,” Guzan said. “There’s disappointment [when I don’t play]. You don’t get to be a professional or get to the national team by being satisfied being a No. 2, by being satisfied with being on the bench and just being a part of it … Every time I didn’t play, of course there was frustration. Especially after games like the Egypt game, when you win 3-0 and you help the team advance and then next thing you know, you find yourself back on the bench.”

Days like that critical one in Rustenberg, which set the U.S. up for its famous upset of Spain, helped motivate Guzan to keep pushing. They confirmed he could do it. The thick skin, and a goalie’s ability to move on quickly from disappointment, took care of the rest.

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He performed well when called upon. After failing to start an international for 28 months, Guzan stepped up in March 2013 and stonewalled the opposition in two critical World Cup qualifiers. He shut out Costa Rica in a blizzard outside Denver, then stymied Mexico four days later at the Estadio Azteca.

“Whenever you get those opportunities, that’s when you have to prove it to other people. Then you have to show everybody else what your self belief is and how you can perform” he said.

It obviously made an impression on U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Even though he opted for Howard at last year’s World Cup and even though Nick Rimando was flawless at the 2013 Gold Cup, Guzan remained on the cusp of the starting job. In May, Klinsmann named Guzan the Gold Cup starter when unveiling the tournament roster. This is a manger who’s been reluctant to anoint anyone, no matter how accomplished. Klinsmann believes comfort and security are recipes for complacency. But he made an exception for Guzan, despite the goalkeeper’s recent benching at Villa. Klinsmann saw a player who’d overcome that disappointment.

“We are excited to have Brad Guzan back in our group,” Klinsmann said. “It’s exciting, even if he had some tough weeks at Aston Villa, where suddenly the coach for whatever reason decided to put him behind Shay Given. That surprised us big time. But he fights through that and he will be sharp and hungry for the long summer.”

Michael Bradley said, “Across the board, the confidence in Brad is huge. We’re all excited for him now that he’s getting extended run of games as the No. 1. There’s full confidence in him that when big moments come, that he’ll be there for us.”

Said Guzan, “We’re human and you want that support and publicly, it’s even better. But it doesn’t change anything from my point of view. I still have to go out and perform. I still have to go out and prove myself and justify his decision. If I go out and have an absolute stinker and throw the ball into the back of the net, of course I’m no longer going to be the No. 1.”

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​Guzan has justified Klinsmann’s decision. He was outstanding as the U.S. grinded its way to first place in a rough and tumble Gold Cup group that included 2013 runner-up Panama, 2010 and 2014 World Cup qualifier Honduras and up-and-coming Haiti. None of the games was easy and the Americans had far less control than many anticipated, but Guzan held steady behind an inexperienced and evolving back line.

He was on from the opening whistle, denying Honduras’ Anthony Lozano with a quick drop to the right in only the third minute in Frisco, Texas. Three days later in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Guzan preserved a one-goal led when he stopped Duckens Nazon on a breakaway. Against Panama in Kansas City, Guzan acrobatically tipped a late, close-range redirection from Miguel Camargo just past the left post. Guzan was beaten twice in three games, but made more than enough good saves to compensate.

During a group stage that featured conversations about Clint Dempsey’s lost captaincy and clutch scoring touch, issues in possession and along the back line, Jozy Altidore’s health and the grueling nature of beating smaller, desperate rivals, Guzan’s performance has been largely overlooked. He was expected to do well and he has—nothing new to see here. Despite the relative lack of international experience for a player of his stature (he has only 34 caps), there was little question he’d be up to the task. Goalkeeper remains one of only two or three spots on the field that U.S. coaches and fans still don’t have to worry about. Guzan is ably carrying on one of the few American soccer traditions.

On Saturday in Baltimore, he’ll be in net again as the U.S. (2-0-1) meets surprising Cuba (1-2-0) in the Gold Cup quarterfinals. A semifinal against either Jamaica or Haiti awaits on Wednesday. The prospects are tantalizing. Guzan was in a Soldier Field suite during the ’07 Gold Cup final. He was on the sidelines during the 2009 Confederations Cup final and then missed the 2010 League Cup final and 2015 FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium with Villa (all losses). He’s been so close to the biggest games, so many times. But he’s yet to experience the feeling of a major final or the thrill of lifting a trophy. When asked, he could not name the last time he played and won something.

“Probably youth soccer at some point,” was the best Guzan could do.

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It’s only natural to imagine lifting the Gold Cup in Philadelphia, to anticipate the thrill and joy and relief of that moment. But spending more than a second or two would take Guzan away from what’s worked so far.

“If all of a sudden I start thinking too much about that, I’m pretty confident I wouldn’t get to that point because there’s many other steps along the way,” he said with the certainty of someone who spent years on that road.

However the Gold Cup ends, Guzan expects to return to Birmingham, where he’s under contract for two more seasons. Yes, he was demoted in April and missed Villa’s final five games. But there was no complaint, no controversy and no public demand for a transfer. Shay Given, who stepped in for Guzan during the stretch run, has moved on to Stoke City, and new signing Mark Bunn, who like Guzan is 30, spent the past two seasons on the bench at Norwich City. The English press is speculating that the starting job once again is Guzan’s to lose.

Whether the same is true at international level remains to be seen. There’s still a Gold Cup to win, and Howard has hinted that he may opt to end his U.S. sabbatical. Younger keepers like William Yarbrough and Bill Hamid are eager to add their names to the lineage and Rimando may play forever.

“It’s a cutthroat business and if you don’t perform or if somebody wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and you’re not their guy, they’ll find a way to move you on,” Guzan said.

Given the responsibility he coveted, he now must fight to keep it. But he’ll do so not by worrying about the future or the competition or what might go wrong. He’ll do it by being a goalkeeper—by “brushing off” and powering through mistakes, snubs, and fear and focusing only on the next play, the next game and what he might do to help his team win. He'll bet on himself.

“There’s always another guy in line. After me, there’s going to be somebody else. That’s the way professional sports go. Players come and go and move on. For me, this is a huge opportunity because it’s a chance to be No. 1 in a huge tournament that means a lot to our team and this country,” he said. “I hope I’m the guy in 2018. It’s up to me to prove to the coaches that I can be counted on, and it starts with the Gold Cup. It starts with this tournament here. It’s about the belief I have within myself and my ability. So when you put those things into place, hopefully that turns into good results on the field.”

U.S. U-20 vs. El Salvador, January 24
USWNT vs. France, February 8
USWNT vs. England, February 13
USWNT vs. Norway, March 4
USWNT vs. Switzerland, March 6
USWNT vs. Iceland, March 9
U.S. U-17 vs. Jamaica, March 15
USMNT vs. Switzerland, March 31