When the U.S. meets England in its World Cup opener on Saturday, the Americans will have a talent disadvantage at just about every position on the field except one: goalkeeper. In fact, you could argue that any of the three U.S. keepers—starter Tim Howard, 31, and backups Brad Guzan, 25, and Marcus Hahnemann, who'll turn 38 on June 15—is better than all of England's keepers (Robert Green, David James and Joe Hart). The Americans play in England's Premier League: Howard has spent four seasons at Everton after breaking in with Manchester United; Guzan has apprenticed behind former U.S. international Brad Friedel at Aston Villa for two seasons; and Hahnemann, the wild man of the bunch, completed his first season with Wolverhampton after seven years at Reading. That experience gives the Americans the added benefit of familiarity with the players they'll be facing in Rustenburg; the entire England squad is drawn from the Premiership.
How to explain the U.S.'s superiority in goal? How do the three work together? And what are Howard and his partners expecting from the showdown against England? SI sat down with them for a group chat.
SI:You guys are better than England's goalkeepers. Why?
Hahnemann: People say it's because we grow up playing basketball and baseball and American football. Guys in England play cricket, so they get some hand-eye coordination, but watch them try to throw an American football and you realize they don't quite have it. I've been in England 11 years now, and seeing my kids grow up in youth soccer there, none of the kids really wanted to be goalies. In America it's a sought-after position.
June 13, 2010
Howard: The best goalkeepers in the world are first and foremost amazing athletes, shot stoppers. You have to fly through the air and be powerful. American [soccer players] traditionally are amazing athletes.
Guzan: In America, maybe the most athletic kid isn't necessarily the most skilled player, so he can fall back on that athleticism and be productive in the goal.
SI:On a lot of national teams the keepers don't get along. Past U.S. squads had some friction between Friedel and Kasey Keller. I've heard you guys get along.
Hahnemann [deadpan]: I don't like any of these guys.
Howard: We all want to play, and only one guy can. It's not like the midfield position: One guy's not going to get three games and the next guy gets two. It takes some big people to overcome that and accept each other.
Hahnemann: If guys can't get over their egos, then you can't get along. We are a miniteam. People say we're no different from everyone else, but we're the ones standing back in goal wearing a different-colored shirt. We are different.
Howard: The life of a goalkeeper is funny. There was a time when I was under Kasey [on the U.S. squad]. Understood. Got it. Cool. Then later I was still under Kasey, but my mind-set was, You know what? I'm better than him, and I'm not playing. Whether I was better wasn't the issue. In my mind I was. Then that relationship slowly changed. There was a little bit more of an edge to training, maybe around the hotel. Never a disrespect, but the tide turned and I thought, I'm not happy with this anymore.
Guzan: You want to be playing in big games. But you have to understand your role and be prepared. I knew I probably wasn't going to play on the weekend during the season [at Villa] because [Friedel] had been playing, but what happens if he gets hurt? We all have to be ready for that call. If you're satisfied being a No. 2 or No. 3, you're never going to be a part of those great games that you dream about.
SI:How much do you communicate during the season?
Hahnemann: I try to call Timmy every once in a while, and he never answers the phone. I talk to Guzan all the time!
Guzan: Timmy's banter is very poor.
Howard [laughs]: I'm terrible, I know. We're on text, but it's harder than you think. We're always traveling at the same time.
Hahnemann: Me and Gooz see each other every once in a while. We live close together. Sometimes he'll end up at the model shop. We're buying model helicopters and planes and stuff. ...
Guzan: I'm watching you buying everything in the store.
SI:Goalkeepers have a reputation for being offbeat. What about you guys?
Howard [points to Hahnemann]: He is!
Guzan: Spot on, right there!
Hahnemann: [Goalkeeper is] a lonely position, especially when that ball goes in the net. The key word is individual. Guys used to make fun of me because of what I'd wear. I'd come in wearing shorts and a T-shirt in the middle of winter. And when people got on me, I'd come back the next day wearing my camouflage jeans.
SI:Are there any things Hahnemann does that stand out to you guys as offbeat?
Howard: What doesn't he do? He dips [tobacco]. He shoots guns. He listens to Five Finger Death Punch, which I've never heard in my life.
Guzan: You're missing out.
SI:I've heard the term goalkeepers union. What does it mean?
Hahnemann: We stick together.
Howard: A better word is probably compassion. If you're in a room full of guys, and they're criticizing another goalkeeper who's not in the room, maybe not even on your team, you're probably going to see the goalkeeper's side of things. That's the type of fraternity it is.
Guzan: Everyone's expecting you to make your save. It's your job. If you don't make that save, everyone's saying, "It's your fault." You look at it from the outside and say, "Why would you pick that position? It's a lose-lose situation." So we understand one other. I know what [the keeper's] going through right now.
SI:Who are the hardest forwards to play against in the Premiership?
Hahnemann: Didier Drogba [of Chelsea and Ivory Coast], Wayne Rooney [of Manchester United and England], Fernando Torres [of Liverpool and Spain]. Their speed is incredible. Drogba might not look as quick, but he's big and strong. With Torres, you think, Little quick pretty boy, and then you see him win headers in the six-yard box. Unbelievable timing. And Rooney's got everything, basically. It's pretty frightening.
Howard: I don't think anyone would disagree with Torres, Rooney, Drogba. What sets Drogba apart is he hits every single ball so hard. On an angle he doesn't look to curl it; he smashes it. When he hits a header, he powers it in. There's nothing finesse about him.
SI:Rooney's clearly the biggest threat on the England team. What will you be watching for?
Guzan: What separates the best strikers is their determination to score goals, their ability to create a half yard at the top of the box and get a shot off.
Hahnemann: A lot of people forget about Rooney's work ethic. He's not just standing on the penalty spot waiting for people to cross the ball. He makes 90% of his goals himself. He chases down balls. If you get a back pass, you'd better hurry your ass up because he is going to close you down.
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A month ago, no one would have imagined that Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley would start at forward in the U.S.'s final friendly before the World Cup. But there they were in a 3--1 victory over Australia last Saturday: Buddle (below), scoring two goals in place of Jozy Altidore (out with a sprained right ankle but expected to play against England), and Findley, filling the injured Charlie Davies's speed role. After supersub Herculez Gomez added a goal in stoppage time, it was anybody's guess who would pair with Altidore in the Cup opener. But suddenly what had been one of the U.S.'s biggest weaknesses looks a lot stronger as England looms.