Klinsmann looks beyond Tim Howard, Brad Guzan as U.S prepares for new era
MIAMI SHORES, Fla. - The power of incumbency doesn't just exist in politics, it applies to goalkeepers as well.
Once the starting role is given to a player and trust between goalkeeper and team has been established, it takes a special set of circumstances -- major injury, retirement or a massive drop in form -- for the spot to be given to someone else.
The U.S. national team has been no different. For much of the past decade, Tim Howard has been the presumptive No. 1 keeper. There have been occasions -- such as last summer's Copa America Centenario -- when Brad Guzan has wrestled the spot away. There have even been instances when the thought of giving another keeper a chance has entered the mind. Those moments have been fleeting, however, as either Howard or Guzan has reasserted himself and the window of opportunity has slammed shut.
So when U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann announced his roster for friendlies against Cuba and New Zealand, the fact that neither Howard nor Guzan was on it was worth a Bill Hader-like raised eyebrow. Instead, Klinsmann opted for the trio of Molde's Ethan Horvath, Club Leon's William Yarbrough and the San Jose Earthquakes' David Bingham. His approach was clear: start planning for the future.
"Obviously there is Tim Howard and there is Brad Guzan, those are the two established ones that we know exactly what we get from both of them because they have so much experience," Klinsmann told reporters prior to Tuesday's practice session.
"But obviously it's our job to bring along the next wave of goalkeepers and give them opportunities. The only way they can grow is if you let them play. We obviously see a lot in training sessions, but training and games is two different worlds. And so hopefully we can get them on the field and give them another maturing opportunity."
The three come from a wide range of backgrounds. Horvath has represented the U.S. starting at under-14 level, and turned pro at age 18. Now 21, Horvath has made 50 appearances for Molde in all competitions, including the Champions League and Europa League.
Bingham, 26, went the collegiate route, playing at the University of California-Berkeley for three seasons before turning pro with San Jose where his ability to dominate his penalty area has seen him take hold of the No. 1 goalkeeping spot.
Yarbrough might be the most intriguing keeper of them all. Born in Mexico to American parents, he started out with Pachuca before eventually moving to Leon and winning two Liga MX titles. A dual citizen, the U.S. called Yarbrough in before Mexico did the same, though he insisted that his mind was made up long ago.
"I've always wanted to play for the U.S. team," he told reporters Tuesday.
"There was a point where I couldn't really answer that question just because I didn't want to sound like my feet weren't on the ground, or my head was somewhere else, so I just kept to myself. But that's something I've decided years ago with my family and close ones. When that day came, who would I choose? Defending these colors, the U.S., was something I always felt was the right thing. You know it's the right thing when it comes from the heart."
So the jockeying for position has already started, and this week it has begun without Horvath, who didn't arrive until Tuesday night because his original flight from Europe was canceled. Starting Wednesday, all three will be able to show Klinsmann how their respective games have grown. At the pro level, the improvements that a keeper makes are subtle, though they can result in noticeable changes in form. For Bingham, refining the mental aspect of his game was where he saw the biggest payoff, and it's an area where, he feels there is still room to grow.
"Decision-making I think is the biggest thing for goalies," he told reporters Monday. "I think it's something that sets national team goalies apart from the rest of them. They make the decisions so quick."
He added: "You have to make mistakes to improve on [that]. You've got to test your boundaries and I do that a lot, and learn what you can do and can't do and go from there."
For Yarbrough there have been mental tests as well, though of a different kind. On the field he has often displayed a fiery personality, even as he was guilty of some obvious errors. Now he admits he's trying to channel that energy in a more effective way.
"Every game that goes by, you learn something new," he said.
"You just get more mature as you play more minutes in the field. I think sometimes one of the biggest [lessons] I've had over the last few months is learning how to control emotions inside of the field because I get involved in a big way when it comes to games and just being able to stay focused throughout the 90 minutes, and not let emotions take me away is something I've improved on a lot."
Now the competition is on to see not only who will play against Cuba and New Zealand, but also who will make the roster for two World Cup qualifiers in November against Mexico and Costa Rica.
"Over the time period we find out where their weaknesses are," said Klinsmann about the keepers he has called in.
"We see their strengths more likely, and then it's down to them, fighting, fighting for the spots. They've got to bring out their elbows in order to push aside a Tim Howard or a Brad Guzan."
And each other.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.