A Murky Outlook for American Keepers At Villa

This is the second guest column by Preston Petri

Gerard Houllier, contemplating changes in front of the mesh at Villa Park...while higher-ups likely contemplate his...

Recently, Aston Villa of the Barclays Premier League have followed in the footsteps of the old Fullhamerica teams by integrating former and current USMNT players into their first team fold. There’s been a lot of talk and praise for the young American defender Eric Lichaj, who has recently been thrown into his first ever two Premier League starts. Its exciting for most USMNT fans to see a young prospect in a right back position which desperately needs a future in Bob Bradley’s side, however one of the most debated positions at Aston Villa, also happens to encompass a couple of Yanks.

Brad Friedel and Brad Guzan, or Big Brad and Little Brad, as they are referred to in the Villa circles, have been the top two goalkeepers at the club for over two seasons, with each of them putting in some impressive as well and forgettable performances. However with Villa in such a terrible run of form as of late, every position, including the goalkeeper has been put under scrutiny by fans and critics alike.

Whereas American fans could always count on an American being between the sticks when they turned on a Villa match on the tube, it appears those days (along with at least one of the Brad’s) may be numbered.

For weeks some fans have been calling for Friedel’s number one jersey to be passed to his fellow Yank understudy in Guzan, but for every fan calling for Friedel’s head, there is another just waiting to go on about how inexperienced Guzan is. It has become quite the debate on Villa fan sites, and now with the January transfer window opening and rumors and speculation flowing about, the debate has expanded.

Complicating matters further is Brad Guzan’s one-month loan to Hull City of the Championship for just a single month’s time—perhaps a lease with the option to buy–and a buzzing undercurrent that much maligned Villa skipper Gerard Houllier is poised to secure a keeper in the January window.

The netminder that has been most consistently linked to a relocation package with to Aston Villa is Rangers keeper Alan McGregor. McGregor, who of course is a teammate with USMNT midfielder Maurice Edu, has been impressive in recent seasons and quite naturally is getting looks at by English clubs. It certainly isn’t a debate that can be settled in a day, or an article for that matter, however let’s take a look at all three options. (assuming McGregor is a realistic transfer target for Gerard Houllier and Aston Villa)

Friedel, looking over his shoulder for oncoming keepers on Trinity Road?

Brad Friedel

Big Brad has been an ever present in the Aston Villa lineup ever since he and Guzan arrived there in the summer of 2008. In Brad’s first Premier League campaign with Villa, he was arguably their player of the season, starting all 38 of their matches, collecting 13 clean sheets and making 124 saves, while Guzan rode the pine with the occasional start in a non league match. The next season (2009/2010) Big Brad continued his impressive displays by again starting all 38 Premier League matches and making 126 saves while raising his clean sheet tally to 15. Guzan again rode the pine in every league match, and featured only in cup matches. You could perhaps make an argument that the Villa defense that season, which ranked second behind Chelsea for the majority of the year, helped make Brad look better, however defensive organization starts with the goalkeeper, and Friedel is one of the best.

He has the Premier league record with 248 straight starts, which for a 39 year old is quite impressive. This season has been a different story for Villa though, and their defensive record is in shambles. So far Friedel has started 20 games and made 61 saves, but has only kept 4 clean sheets, and with less than half the season to go, it does not look like the Ohio native will improve on his previous seasons. Fans have criticized his decision making, his lack of penalty saves, and his reaction time (which has admittedly looked slow recently). Can you blame the guy? He’s 39 and perhaps his time with Villa is nearing an end, especially with constant speculation of a return to the MLS. Either way, he still remains a very competent keeper and a good option for Villa.

Guzan: Commanding respect at least on the pitch....for the Yanks...

Brad Guzan

Little Brad was brought in for cover by Martin O’Neil in 2008 less than a year after he was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.  Guzan has been number two at Villa for over two seasons, as well as being number two for the USMNT behind the ever present, and Evertonian Tim Howard. It seemed at the time as if Guzan’s move to Villa, was simply to fill the depth chart for O’Neil, however as the months went by in his first season, you could see that O’Neil had plans to groom Guzan as a future number one.

Because of the great play from Friedel, and the fact that O’Neil rarely changed his starting 11, Guzan was stuck on the bench for two straight seasons. It has to be tough on Guzan being second string for so long, and I’m sure that’s why a week ago he agreed to go on loan to Hull City in the Championship for some game time. So far he has started two matches for the Tigers allowing three goals, and making 12 saves. The 26 year old was originally tabbed as Friedel’s successor; however Friedel kinked those plans by continuing to play impressively longer than most thought he would.

Under O’Neil, Guzan started most of the cup matches; giving Villa fans little to judge him on. In his first season with Villa he started five UEFA cup matches, one Carling Cup match, and one F.A. Cup match. He also made a substitute appearance in a loss against Liverpool in the Premier League, after Brad Friedel had been sent off. Guzan’s performance against Slavia Prague in the UEFA cup group stages is one of the matches that likely sticks out in Villa fans’ minds. Villa won 1-0 however they had Guzan to thank after the American made some critical saves from point blank range to deny Prague of a deserved win.

Guzan, congratulated after a dazzling performance against Sunderland in '09

One thing Guzan owns over Friedel is the title of Penalty King. Villa fans, jokingly of course, will call for Guzan to be substituted for Friedel anytime a penalty is awarded against them strictly because of a Carling Cup match against Sunderland in the 2009/2010 season. On that day, Guzan saved a penalty from Kierian Richardson to deny Sunderland the victory, and then when the game went into penalties, he saved three more giving Villa a pass to the next round of the Carling Cup. Villa made it to the final of that competition but lost to Manchester United, however most Villa fans talk about that Guzan performance as a big reason for their successful cup run.

The knocks on Guzan are his inexperience, his inability to control his area, and his lack of organizational skills. Despite all of this, with a new manager, comes new expectations, and from what we have seen from Houllier so far (his interest in McGregor being an example)  it leads us to suspect that Guzan is not expected to be the long term starter for Aston Villa.  Although he has impressed some fans, if appears he’s failed to impress Houllier early on which has the Frenchman prowling for “his guy.”

McGregor, the bite is as bad as the bark.

Alan McGregor

McGregor has been between the pipes for Rangers since 2006, and the 28 year old has earned high reviews from his peers, making his name a common one in the transfer window speculation.

While Guzan and Friedel were vying for Villa’s number one jersey, McGregor was helping his team win the SPL and compete in Europe.

It has been speculated many times that Houllier would want to make a bid for McGregor, and Houllier himself has been quoted as saying “I would like to watch McGregor play, because I would be stupid to not plan for the future.”

Assuming Houllier made a hard push for McGregor, he wouldn’t be a bad fit at Aston Villa. However, whether or not you agree, it is common opinion that the Barclays Premier League is on a much stronger level of competition that the Scottish Premier league is, and the first question would be how McGregor would fair with better players attacking at him.

Additionallly McGregor isn’t the biggest of keepers, going a 6’0’’ in cleats—while Ben Foster has succeeded this year at Birmingham the issue of height is always one that comes to mind when discussing keepers. For comparison, the two Brads hover in the 6’3’’ range.

In the SPL this season, McGregor has started 16 matches making 56 saves and collecting four clean sheets. The numbers are similar to the current Villa number one in Friedel, despite the level of competition. Last season was a big one for Rangers, and McGregor started 35 matches making 162 saves and keeping 14 clean sheets. Those are very impressive numbers, but Villa fans would have to hope that those numbers would translate well if he moved to a more competitive league. He’s certainly a seasoned keeper, and isn’t a bad name to be thrown around as your possible number one, but is he better than either of the Americans?

All three of the keepers are respected players, however it seems most Villa fans prefer experience, which would leave little Brad Guzan out in the cold. Guzan is a promising keeper for both Aston Villa and the USA, but perhaps he has recently seen the writing on the wall. His loan to Hull City is only for a month, but it looks as if that is either a test for Guzan to prove himself, or a sign of things to come. Houllier hasn’t featured Guzan this season, and after sending him out on loan, it looks though Guzan’s locker room cube might be earmarked for reassignment shortly.

With Friedel’s career sunsetting, it seems odd that Houllier would jettison a 26-year-old who’s got the reps down at Villa Park and has the respect of his teammates in favor of a 28-year-old career Scottish Premier League player that’s going to cost him around $4M. …

Would be purchase of McGregor by Houllier merely coincide with the accepted practice in the EPL of playing veteran keepers (Robinson, Van Der Saar, James until this year) or does the Villa manager have little faith in Guzan who’s never marshaled a team in Europe. McGregor has nearly nine years of experience on him there? It’s probably a little bit of both but more of the latter.

But there is perhaps another consideration, a salary consideration. The financial problems at Villa have a lot to do with wages rather than transfer fees. Houllier’s predecessor O Neil did the club an injustice by signing players to huge contracts without an appropriate outlook on their place in the team or playing time. By selling Guzan–whose annual salary we could not find–Villa could perhaps be moving a player who would be told by management to take a salary cut.

Rather than risk a disgruntled player at a position that needs stability, Houllier may be wanting to start fresh with negotiations with McGregor.

Guzan

Has Brad Guzan played the role of "Understudy" at Villa for the final time? (Photo credit: The Offsides Rules)

My Bet? Guzan is sent out on loan the rest of the season with a view to a permanent deal in the summer, Friedel keeps his place as the number one keeper until the summer when he departs to MLS, and McGregor (or someone of his caliber) is purchased by Houllier to ride the pine for Villa until taking the job next season when Friedel is gone.

Either way, the American keeper contingent doesn’t look to be the future for Aston Villa, however look out for Guzan who should one day take the USMNT number one jersey from Tim Howard after gaining some years and experience.

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15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Villan on 2011/01/03 at 8:10 PM

    Friedel has been superb but can’t go on forever. Guzan will never be good enough. Time to get a new on.

    Reply

    • Posted by Soccernst on 2011/01/03 at 8:54 PM

      Guzan is good enough, and will prove his worth elsewhere. Good luck with your “upgrade.” by my observation Villa on a downswing after a brief renaissance of a good group players overachieving to produce great results before slowly being sold off part by part and returning to decent status.

      Reply

  2. Posted by dude on 2011/01/03 at 9:26 PM

    Guzan is one of the most promising keepers out there, the simple fact that America has two others playing in England right now being the only reason he is so valued for club and country. This article doesn’t mention the stupendous pk shootout with Juventus in which he outclassed Buffon. While American goalkeepers are respected, they are either perfect or not good enough. Guzan could be monstrous.

    Would he be great immediately following his introduction into Villa’s starting lineup? Probably not. But he would improve by leaps and bounds. But it looks like Houllier is overlooking one of his most obvious assets.

    Reply

    • Posted by sfshwebb on 2011/01/03 at 9:51 PM

      Keeper is the position in soccer where consistency is key.

      I actually think that by loaning out Guzan to Hull is actually beneficial to him and Villa. He gets to play in competitive games every week and gets to work on his weaknesses. Next season, Houiller or whomever is in charge can then try him in preseason, so that he isn’t immediately thrown into the fray.

      By loaning him out, he’s getting first team experience now, that will prepare him better for Villa next season. This way Villa management can really see what Guzan can bring over a series of games versus cup runs.

      Reply

  3. Posted by prestonpetri on 2011/01/03 at 10:40 PM

    dude

    i agree, Guzan is a beast, and i forgot to mention that great performance against Juventes.

    However you are correct about Houllier overlooking him. It seems as if he just doesnt impress him, but maybe the loan to Hull will change that

    sfshwebb is right…a loan move can only be beneficial at this point

    Reply

  4. Posted by JasonPrice on 2011/01/04 at 1:28 AM

    First choice goalkeepers are almost always bought, not weened. Very unlikely that Guzan becomes the #1 at Villa.

    Reply

    • Posted by cosmosredux on 2011/01/04 at 5:51 AM

      The legend returns…

      Reply

    • Posted by sfshwebb on 2011/01/04 at 12:32 PM

      Jason – Actually I don’t see this as completely true. Yes in some instances like Van der Sar, Reina and Cech, they had an immediate impact, but they also had strong minded and good organizing central defenders (Rio, Carragher and Terry) to help organize their back line for them till they got used to it.

      A lot of keepers like Casillas, Valdez and Hart were either weened in or went out on loan and came back as they slowly developed within the system.

      Shay Given is an excellent example. He was unbelievable at Newcastle, but moved to City and now doesn’t even get first team football and has been replaced by Hart.

      Before United got Van de Sar, they went thru a series of goalkeepers that they bought and immediately placed into the first team to vary degrees of failure (timmy being the most successful and even he wasn;t good enough). Spurs had similar issues until they settled on Gomes and Arsenal are going thru it right now.

      I think this is Guzan’s chance to prove to Villa that he is a worthy successor to Friedel. Whether he does or not is up to him.

      Reply

  5. [...] Brad Guzan was sent out on loan by Aston Villa. It’s only a one month spell at Hull City (where Americans go to suck), but that could be the least of the issues for American goalies in the north. Gerard Houllier is reportedly looking at Rangers’ McGregor as a replacement for the over-40 Brad Friedel. [...]

    Reply

  6. Posted by SamT on 2011/01/04 at 9:34 AM

    Big Brad, Medium Brad, and Little Alan. Don’t bet against El Guzano.

    Reply

  7. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/04 at 5:12 PM

    Jason does have a point, especially because of the money involved these days – there’s not the patience there once was, many keepers have had shaky starts but turned out to be legends in years gone by.

    The other thing that wasn’t mentioned was O’Neill himself. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Villa’s defensive organisation has gone to pot… less likely to be Freidel as that’s something. That doesn’t disappear that quickly IMO.

    Reply

    • Posted by dth on 2011/01/04 at 6:04 PM

      I think it has to do with O’Neill’s odd defensive choices: O’Neill loved to play four centerbacks in a flat four which I think is a real weakness overall (but makes you stronger defensively).

      Reply

  8. [...] Things not looking good for Aston Villa’s American goalkeepers. [The Shin Guardian] [...]

    Reply

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