It's hopeless. Gone. A sure goal. But Brad Friedel sees the shot. Planted on his line, Tottenham Hotspur's U.S. goalkeeper jab-steps once to his right, then springs violently left. The 25-yard blast by Swansea's Gylfi Sigurdsson is curving away from Friedel toward the top corner. On a big Premier League match day, in a race where every point counts, Swansea is about to draw level at 1--1. But Friedel sees the shot. His left arm fully extended, his flying form almost parallel to the turf, Friedel looks like a man who has suddenly decided to hail a cab going 80 miles an hour four lanes away. His left hand slaps the ball, which caroms off the goalpost and over the end line.
This is an article from the April 23, 2012 issue
The English media will hail Friedel's play as the save of the week—Spurs go on to a 3--1 win—and one of the best of the season. Yet even more remarkable than the save itself is that it was pulled off by such an, um ... experienced ...
"You can say it," Friedel interrupts with a laugh. "An old bastard!"
How old is Brad Friedel? Old enough to have competed in the 1992 Olympics. Old enough to have turned pro before U.S. star Juan Agudelo was born. Old enough to have tried out in England before the formation of the Premier League. Old enough to have represented the U.S. in three World Cups and to have retired from the national team seven years ago.
And old enough to have played in 299 straight games in England's Premier League, more than any other player in league history. While Spurs, who are in fourth place in the Premiership with five matches remaining, jockey for a Champions League spot for next season, the 40-year-old Friedel has turned into soccer's version, in looks and actions, of Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies.
"When you get older, there are things you see quicker and certainly things you see but know you probably can't get there [in time]," says Friedel, who long has been known for his shot-stopping, distribution and defensive organization. "The through-ball: Am I going to beat Wayne Rooney to the ball over a 30-yard sprint? Probably not. But you can read those situations so much quicker and realize, My defender can get there. If I was 24, I could probably sprint out and take care of it. But now it has to do with my trust in the outfield players—and a lot of talking."
Often goalkeepers rail at their own back line, whether to shift the blame for a goal or to vent frustration. "You have to be careful," Friedel says. "It's easy for an outfield player to switch off with you and say, 'Shut your frickin' mouth! You're not running around for 90 minutes!' You have to keep those players onside." It may help Friedel's rapport with his defenders that after 15 years in England the northern Ohio native sounds more like a Brit than an American. Not that he's conscious of it. "I have never tried to have any accent, ever," says Friedel, whose lilt is a source of bemusement even among his own family. "When I go back to Ohio and I'm there three or four weeks, my family says it switches back to American. But the people here think I sound American. So I can't really win."
THOUGH HE'S a Premier League fixture, it took ages for Friedel just to get his chance in England. After winning an NCAA title and the Hermann Trophy at UCLA, he left for England in 1992 but was denied a work permit—the employment rules at the time, meant to protect domestic players, were notoriously tough. With no U.S. league in place, Friedel signed a contract with the national team, backing up Tony Meola at the '94 World Cup, then made stops in Denmark, Turkey and MLS. Finally in '97 he landed with English giant Liverpool, the team he'd supported since he was nine, when his father had taken him to see the Reds play West Ham at Wembley Stadium while on a family vacation.
But Friedel struggled for playing time at Anfield and left in November 2000 for Blackburn Rovers, then in the next lower division. There he stuck, immediately winning the job as Blackburn's No. 1 and helping Rovers earn promotion to the Premier League. On Aug. 14, 2004, he donned the gloves in Blackburn's 1--1 season-opening draw with West Brom. He has not missed a Premier League match since.
For years Friedel's goal was to play with a top European team until he was 34 or 35, then return to the States for a swan song in MLS. But the longer he excelled, the more his expectations shifted. Friedel attributes his iron-man streak to the usual suspects—eating and sleeping right, not overtraining, drinking in moderation—but says the key has been yoga. After tearing his right quadriceps at the end of the 2003--04 season (the cause of his last missed games), Friedel took up the practice on the suggestion of former teammate Barry Venison. "When you get older, it's easier to get tightness in your groin and quads and hips," he says. "If you can keep those parts strong and flexible, it helps your knees." Friedel does his downward-facing dog twice a day year-round and has recruited Spurs teammates and staff to a weekly session with his longtime instructor. "We never did yoga when I played," marvels Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp. "We didn't even used to stretch before training!" For Friedel the results are plain to see. One month before he turns 41, and at 6'3" and 202 pounds, he can nearly do splits.
Redknapp considers Friedel's goalkeeping performance this season among the best in the league: Through Sunday he was fourth, with 12 clean sheets. "And since the Premier League started [in 1992], he'd be up there with the best of them, the [Edwin] van der Sars and [Peter] Schmeichels, certainly in the top 10," says Redknapp. "He's unflappable. The back four feel confident with him there, and he's probably only made one mistake since he's been here."
"Brad has that calming influence on you," says Spurs midfielder Scott Parker. "You see some keepers flying around the goal, and it might be pleasing to the eye, but with Brad everything is always in control."
As the longest serving American in Europe, Friedel is uniquely positioned as an observer of the game both abroad and in the States. He sees the millions of dollars going into U.S. youth development and wonders why a population of 300 million can't produce more genuine European soccer stars. "We should be able to count on more than two hands the U.S. players who've had strong established careers in the top leagues," he says. As for the changes in the Premiership since his arrival in 1997, he says, "The pace of the game increases every year because the athletes get better, but the physicality of the game decreases every year." Referees now whistle more dangerous tackles, he argues, and give yellow and red cards for plays that wouldn't have even been deemed fouls 15 years ago.
Friedel is convinced that a top keeper in the lower half of the Premier League can make a difference of 13 to 15 points in the standings over the course of a season—Blackburn finished in the top 10 in each of Friedel's final three years with the club; the season after he left for Aston Villa, Rovers dropped to 15th—while one in the upper half can provide a nine- to 12-point swing. That explains why Spurs signed Friedel last summer on a free transfer. Despite reaching the Champions League quarterfinals in 2011, Tottenham finished a disappointing fifth in the Premier League due partly to the inconsistency of goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes. If Spurs can maintain their top four position, they'll earn a berth in the Champions League next season, and Friedel, at age 41, would make his debut in the world's most prestigious club tournament.
On an off day in Theydon Bois, the village northeast of London that Friedel calls home, one of the world's top goalkeepers turns into Mr. Mom. While his wife, Tracy, tends to her business, a children's clothing store called Izzy & Al, Brad makes school runs and handles other household tasks involving daughters Izabella, 8, and Allegra, 5, and 11-month-old son Rayf. It's all very domestic. You'd be surprised how much time athletes have at home when, in a place as small as England, they spend so few days on the road. "In my daily life I'm a father, not a Premier League goalkeeper," says Friedel. "It's exciting when you have three kids, so you live vicariously through them."
When he does stop playing, Friedel can look back with pride at a groundbreaking career, the highlights of which include a standout performance at Japan/Korea 2002, when he became the only keeper ever to save two penalty kicks in a single World Cup. Friedel retired from the national team in '05 to focus on his club career, but his continued Premier League excellence made at least one U.S. coach wonder if he'd consider playing for the Yanks again. He says Bob Bradley asked him what he'd do if he called Friedel up before the '10 World Cup. "I didn't think it would be fair to the guys who went through qualifying," Friedel says. "I told him, 'If you pick the three goalkeepers and all of them get injured or sick, then call me.' That would be fair."
On the club side, though, he keeps going—Friedel's contract with Spurs runs through 2012--13, and then he'll reevaluate. Why quit if you're still thriving at the highest level? "Most of my friends in the game are retired," says Friedel. "And every one of them tells me the same thing: Carry on until you can't anymore. Because nothing replaces playing."
THE FRIEDEL FILE
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