Guzan and Howard stay close while Wood gets a chance to impress
DALLAS -- When U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann pulled veteran goalkeepers Brad Guzan and Tim Howard aside last week and told them that Guzan would start at the Copa America Centenario, the moment mostly struck the chosen man as anticlimactic.
"It wasn't as exciting as everyone might think it was," Guzan told ESPN the day before Wednesday's friendly against Ecuador (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN). "It was a short little talk, and that was it."
That's not to say that Guzan isn't excited about the opportunity. After all, the 31-year-old had served as Howard's deputy since 2008 and sat behind Howard, 37, at the past two World Cups.
While he served as the Americans' No. 1 during Howard's yearlong hiatus after Brazil 2014 and in the first two months after he returned, this is different.
Although Klinsmann said Tuesday that he would re-evaluate the pecking order after the Copa, the message is that it's now officially Guzan's job to lose.
It was hard to know, in advance of the announcement, which way Klinsmann was leaning.
"The decision with Brad and with Tim was obviously an ongoing conversation topic with us," he said Tuesday. "We obviously analyzed the situation from game to game, but also a longer stretch of time. We knew that it was not going to be an easy one."
After the news hit, Klinsmann cited Howard's break and his midseason demotion to a supporting role at Everton as factors. But Guzan also dealt with adversity this season, losing his place twice during the second half of Aston Villa's miserable Premier League campaign and sitting out the already-relegated club's final three games.
"You know that it can impact the summer," Guzan said.
One thing it didn't impact was the pair's friendship. U.S. fans of a certain age will remember the long-standing rivalry between Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller, predecessors to Guzan and Howard in the Americans' net.
Like their eventual replacements, both were top-end backstops in the Prem, whose professional rivalry pushed both them and the U.S. team to new heights.
They also didn't get along off the field. On at least one occasion, before the start of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, the pair nearly came to blows on the practice field. The current keeper rivalry couldn't be more different, no matter who's starting and who's sitting.
"Nothing has really changed," Guzan said. "Tim and I have a great relationship at training and off the field. We go to dinner together. We hang out."
And they helped each other through what was an unusually trying club season for both, chatting on the phone and picking each other up when necessary, even as they knew only one of them would get the assignment in June.
"Yes, we're competitive," Guzan said. "We push each other. But we understand that only one goalkeeper can play. It's part of the position, and at the end of the day, it's the manager's decision. It's not like I picked myself to play."
Klinsmann, basically, called the choice a coin flip. Others have correctly pointed out that, with two top-end keepers to choose from, whoever gets the nod to start is the least of the U.S.' worries.
Still, there are some distinct stylistic differences between the two. Howard is fire-and-brimstone, an emotional keeper who wears his heart on his sleeve. Guzan is more even-keeled.
"I've always said that if you could build a goalkeeper and you could take this guy's hands, this keeper's feet, the brain would be Brad's," Howard said. "His mental strength and fortitude is better than anyone I've ever seen. He has the ability to, even in the midst of chaos, to shrug things off and not in a flippant way. For me, he's the best goalkeeping mind I've ever been around."
And Guzan, for his part, will continue to lean on Howard.
"Tim's been around the national team for so long and is so well-liked and respected for what he's done for his country and what he brings to this team," Guzan said. "He's still a huge influence on guys. He's an influence on me. He's helped me. You want guys pushing each other because that's when you get the best out of each other."
Wood gets his opportunity
With Jozy Altidore (hamstring) ruled out of the competition, Bobby Wood is the presumed starter at center forward. That's just fine with Clint Dempsey, who was shoehorned into a target striker role when Altidore went down with the same injury at the 2014 World Cup.
"That's not generally my main strength; I like to be the withdrawn forward and get on the half turn," said Dempsey, who paired with Wood in March's World Cup qualifying win against Guatemala. "I've played some games with Bobby and got a good rhythm. I thought we did well against Guatemala in our last game." Klinsmann, meanwhile, thinks the 23-year-old Wood, who scored a well-taken first-half goal against the Puerto Ricans, is up to the challenge of stepping in for one of the Americans' most senior players. "You have a Bobby Wood who gets stronger and stronger, who gets more and more confident," the coach said. "It's going to be a nice benchmark for our forwards in a tournament like that and the defenders that you face ... I think Bobby cannot wait to challenge himself."
Testing friendlies ahead
After Sunday's glorified scrimmage in Puerto Rico, Ecuador will provide a genuine test ahead of the U.S.' June 3 opener against Colombia. A game against Bolivia follows in Kansas City on Saturday.
"Playing teams from South America is a great challenge for us, because it teaches us a lot," said Klinsmann. "There's a lot of respect, but for is the real challenge is to go face-to-face with these countries and prove that we can beat them.
"We need to know exactly where we stand," he continued. "After that game [on Wednesday] we have a good answer. And after that game against Bolivia we have even more information to decide on all the individual pieces for the Colombia game."
The U.S. will not be at full strength at Toyota Stadium, with defenders Geoff Cameron (hamstring) and Fabian Johnson (groin) still recovering from nagging injuries.
"They are progressing well," Klinsmann said before adding that Cameron was unlikely to play Wednesday. "But he's going to be fine for the tournament; no problem."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.