March and beyond: Taking inventory of the USMNT's goalkeeping options
Howard, injured early in the second half of last November's qualifying defeat to Mexico, hopes to be back on the field in March, but he may not be ready for the Americans’ March 24 showdown with Honduras in San Jose, California.
It's among the more vexing conundrums that U.S. head coach Bruce Arena faces heading into his first World Cup qualifiers since 2005. There is no obvious replacement, not with Brad Guzan seeing so little time at Middlesbrough, although the January camp and attendant friendlies offered a reasonable candidate. Nick Rimando, making his first international appearance since April 2015, kept Serbia scoreless during January’s friendly in San Diego.
“Outside of Brad, Tim and Nick, there's a huge drop in caps in all these guys,” said U.S. goalkeeper coach Matt Reis, who won two U.S. caps during a 16-year pro career. “Ideally, we'd have a lot more time and maybe we wouldn't be under the crunch of having our backs up against the wall in qualifying.”
There's added intrigue, given that Howard and Rimando are both 37. Goalkeepers have a longer lifespan than field players, but the hierarchy could change considerably by the time the World Cup arrives next year.
Although the battle for No. 1 going forward is just starting, Reis says the bigger picture isn't in focus.
“We're not even looking that far,” he said. “The biggest thing is qualifying right now for us. We've got to find someone who's playing at their best [heading] into March, and there's not too many games for the MLS guys, so it's really important that they start out of the blocks solid and are making good decisions and making saves.”
Here's a look at the landscape, ahead of next month's games and looking down the road:
Tim Howard, Colorado Rapids
111 caps, 37 shutouts
Howard has been the Yanks' de facto No. 1 for the last decade, a year-long sabbatical a couple of years ago aside, and he is targeting a March 8 return. He hasn’t abandoned hope of playing against Honduras and Panama.
“There's not a lot of time between the start of the season and the start of qualifying,” he said in January. “I'm going to take preseason as it comes, then the beginning of March, and then we're going to go from there.”
Howard has the full array of tools. He's incredibly athletic and a terrific communicator -- a primary skill at this position.
Long-term, he remains No. 1, with no plans to slow down. He'll play into his 40s, he told FourFourTwo, if able.
THE STURDY BACKUP
Brad Guzan, Middlesbrough/Atlanta United
53 caps, 18 shutouts
The England-based Guzan, 32, a superb shot-stopper, normally would be a slam dunk for the March starts, but the longtime No. 2's inability to find regular time at Boro is a hurdle. A summer move to Atlanta United promises to fix that, and he'll certainly battle for the top job toward Russia.
Might Guzan's experience be the difference for the Honduras game?
“Because they're not getting games on a consistent basis doesn't mean you can rule him out,” Arena said this month. “I think Brad has shown enough that he's still a strong candidate to be our No. 1 goalkeeper.
THE OLD STANDBY
Nick Rimando, Real Salt Lake
22 caps, 5 shutouts
Throw out the U.S.' four goalkeeping icons -- Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Howard -- and Guzan, and nobody has more caps in the nets than Rimando, who debuted back in 2002 and was the No. 3 at the 2014 World Cup. He could start next month if Guzan's inaction is deemed meaningful, and if not, he's a trusted option through this cycle.
He offers something different, of course -- just 5-foot-9 but cat-quick, with great feet and a terrific read on the game -- but it's his experience that's so valuable at the moment.
WAITING IN THE WINGS
David Bingham, San Jose Earthquakes
3 caps, 1 shutout
After two really fine campaigns in the Quakes' nets, Bingham, 27, might be the best option to battle Guzan for the top spot once Howard steps aside. He has the perfect frame, is a superb shot-stopper, has a strong presence in the air and a powerful leg. He needs more experience to become better under pressure and improve his distribution.
Luis Robles, New York Red Bulls
MLS' iron man -- 155 successive full games for the New York Red Bulls, postseason included, dating to September 2012 -- won the league's top-goalkeeper award in 2015 and was No. 1 in victories and shutouts last season. Robles, 32, has been in the national team conversation for nearly a decade without getting much of a chance. He stops shots and is good with his feet, but he needs more time at the international level.
William Yarbrough, Club Leon
The Mexican-born netminder, 27, has made just one start for the Yanks, in last October's friendly against New Zealand, but he's starting for struggling Leon in Liga MX. He's shown a knack for great saves and costly errors, but could get his chance if he can shore up his consistency.