Tim Howard was the United States’ goalkeeper, then he took a year off and Brad Guzan became the man between the sticks for Jurgen Klinsmann. Now Howard is back and, after the Confederations Cup final, the two goalkeepers will have a Battle of the Bald for the job. But that competition comes with a hole – it excludes arguably the best American goalkeeper.
While Howard has kept playing for Everton — usually adequately, but with some bad goals mixed in — and Guzan got demoted at Aston Villa only to win the starting job back, Bill Hamid has been the unquestioned man between the sticks for D.C. United. More than that, he’s been the best goalkeeper in all of MLS.
There was a time when Hamid was a project – more potential than end product. For every brilliant save he’d make, there would be a howler, and while his athleticism was never in question, his positioning often was. But that was two years and seemingly another career ago for Hamid, who has been nothing short of brilliant ever since.
His shot stopping is beyond reproach and his reading of the game is now better than average. The mental mistakes and lapses in judgement that made him such a liability before have all but gone. He’s every bit as dependable as he is jaw dropping.
The same can’t always be said of Howard and Guzan anymore. Mistakes may not be a regular part of Howard’s game, but they’re not especially rare, either. His positioning can leave a lot to be desired, and crosses can become an adventure. While he was marvelous in his last match for the U.S. — the record-setting show against Belgium in the World Cup — that isn’t the norm, and the last three years at Everton have proved it. Guzan is steady enough, as he showed at the Gold Cup, but he’s hardly a match-winner, and even if much of his demotion at Aston Villa can be chalked up to Tim Sherwood’s bouts with insanity, he was dropped as his club’s starting goalkeeper not even six months ago.
The U.S. has long had some of the better goalkeepers in the world, starting nearly two decades ago with Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller, but that isn’t the case anymore. There are lots of competent choices, but no clear cut world class ones.
So if there is going to be a battle for the starting goalkeeper job, why isn’t Hamid given the same opportunity to win the gig as Howard and Guzan?
Klinsmann will say that Hamid has gotten his chances, earning call-ups to the national team over the last three years and two caps to go with it. He’s been in training several times, and Klinsmann has been able to watch him play. It’s not as if Klinsmann is flying blind on Hamid.
Hamid hasn’t exactly been given a fair shot, though. He’s been relegated to the group of third- or fourth-choice goalkeepers, brought into camp sporadically and for short spurts along with Sean Johnson and William Yarbrough. This despite the fact that he’s been miles better than both at the club level. It seems as if no improvement and spectacular play for D.C. United can get him out of the lower rungs of the team.
It is just D.C. United, and in the eyes of Klinsmann that is not insignificant. He’s not challenging himself at the highest level, toiling away in MLS while Howard and Guzan are playing in the Premier League. But that’s also an unfair weight to hang on Hamid, especially if it’s considered a damning one, seeing as Hamid is at the top of his game and the other two aren’t.
At this point, if Howard and Guzan are better than Hamid, it’s not by much, and the greatest difference between them is the inexperience of Hamid. There’s only one way to change that, too. With experience, the gap, if it exists, between Hamid and the current two can disappear quickly.
One thing that won’t change is the age difference between Hamid and Howard and Guzan. Hamid is just 25 years old, while Guzan checks in at 31 and Howard at 36. And while Hamid’s play has just been getting better and better, Guzan and Howard’s has been going the other way. Come the 2018 World Cup, it’s tough to envision Hamid not being the Americans’ best goalkeeper. But while Klinsmann hasn’t put huge value in experience, things are a bit different in goal, and the last thing the U.S. wants to do is hand the keys to the team to a goalkeeper with only a handful of caps at the World Cup.
Klinsmann has preached the importance of bringing along young players and, to his credit, has given players extraordinary chances all over the pitch. Whether it’s DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Green, Jordan Morris or a dozen other players, Klinsmann has bet on players early and given them every chance to prove themselves, in matches as well as in training. It didn’t always pay off right away — sometimes becoming disastrous, like at the Gold Cup — but Klinsmann remained committed.
That attitude hasn’t applied in goal, though. Maybe Hamid isn’t the best American goalkeeper. Maybe he shouldn’t be starting for the U.S. But if not, he’s not far off the pace, and he certainly has earned the chance to compete for the gig.
Hamid’s time is coming, probably quicker than U.S. fans and even Klinsmann want to acknowledge. Hell, it might be here already.
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