The storylines that dominated conversation prior to the international break were rather ruined by the collection of four points in two tricky matches. The anonymous quotes that put Jurgen Klinsmann on the defensive seem far sillier in light of his mastery of the sport of ice hockey last Friday and the USA's well-thought out performance against Mexico at the Azteca. But even Klinsmannitis was overshadowing another narrative -- Tim Howard was missing, and American fans were afraid.
Howard's most obvious replacement was (and remains), Aston Villa stopper Brad Guzan. While the USA's number one was sidelined with a back injury, Guzan, untested at the international level, would be stepping into the breach. And boy, were people upset about it.
It's not just that they were worried about Howard's absence. Without prolonged overexposure to star-spangled goggles, it's difficult to picture the Everton man as an elite goalkeeper. His shot-stopping, which for years has been his only standout skill that didn't involve him looking angrily at everyone, has started to fail him, and it's reasonably plain to all concerned that he's on the decline. Tim Howard is an important part of the national team, certainly, but not its lynchpin.
So why the fuss over Guzan? Well, complaints seemed to fall into one of two camps:
- He plays for Aston Villa, and therefore he can't be very good.
- He might be a fine goalkeeper but hasn't proved himself at the international level yet.
Although the first narrative is slightly more depressing than the second due to sheer laziness -- those subscribing to that opinion clearly haven't bothered watching Paul Lambert's side (in their defence, there's not really a compelling reason to unless you're actually a Villa fan) -- they're both, more or less, two sides of the same coin: The international medallion of shiny goodness.
It is footballing tradition to think of national team matches as a step above the humdrum of club football. Traditions generally made some sense in the times before they became traditions -- Neanderthals, for instance, used to hang up mistletoe at the entrance to their cave dwellings to stave off by hungry packs of Velociraptor, who would otherwise be desperate enough to attack humans during the lean times of winter -- but if something still has any rational basis in modernity, it is by definition not a tradition.
And considering international football as some higher plane of existence no longer makes any sense whatsoever for outfield players, nevermind goalkeepers. In the early years, before the sport became an globe-spanning business, the best players active in a given country would tend to form the national team. Since this era also predated sensible use of training and tactics, throwing the best players together and telling them to go do some football resulted in a higher standard of play.
In 2013, that no longer applies. The top leagues (despite the sneers, the Premier League surely features here) feature talent from around the world -- if the English national team was composed of the best players in England they wouldn't be drawing 1-1 in Montenegro -- which means that international teams that aren't Spain no longer have an all-star feel to them. But worse for national teams is the evolution of football itself.
We are no longer living in a world where teams can reasonably get away with throwing a bunch of players together in training for a few weeks and expecting them to operate effectively. Creating a working team requires months of intensive training in order to foster an understanding of each footballer's role in a specific system, which is why national teams always operate as less than the sum of their parts and also why international football tends to be so defensive. It's easier to drop back into a shell and counter-attack than to play incisive attacking football with teammates that you don't know particularly well.
So, despite the mystique surrounding the USMNT, Brad Guzan wasn't experiencing a higher plane of football when he faced off against Costa Rica in Colorado or El Tri at the Azteca. He's an above average Premier League goalkeeper who's spent all year trying to marshal an incoherent, incompetent defence against teams far more dangerous than the ones he faced over the international break. There was literally no reason that football fans should think he wouldn't be up to the task for the United States.
It's not news that Brad Guzan acquitted himself admirably over the past few days. He was always going to be more than capable of playing at national team level, because he plays against teams that are better than Mexico and Costa Rica every single week. Doubt him at your peril.