Over the last three decades, the United States mens team has cycled through various weaknesses that have kept it on the outside looking in at the world’s elite programs. But goalie has always been a strength. The steady hands of fellas like Casey Keller, Brad Friedl, Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, and even the few cameos made by MLS stalwarts like Nick Rimando always gave the team at least a fighting chance to hang with the powerhouses.
And now, with more and more players making the leap to, and playing significant minutes in Europe, the U.S. is in theory supposed to have its best crop of goalkeepers yet. The reality, however, is that they don’t. Even though Zack Steffen and Matt Turner are on the books at two of England’s biggest clubs, they have given fans, let alone coach Greg Berhalter, no reason for confidence. Third choice and Gold Cup hero Ethan Horvath would seem to be an option, but he can’t unseat Brice Samba at Nottingham Forest. The youth ranks include highly rated Gaga Slonina, but Poland came calling and he may very soon no longer be an option.
Oddest of all, this is rapidly becoming a five alarm fire, and nobody is talking about it. They really need to be.
Let’s start with Steffen. In his most recent high profile game, he dilly dallied in possession, allowing Sadio Mane to disposess him directly into the net, essentially sealing Manchester City’s FA Cup semifinal defeat. Now, everyone is human and even the world’s finest keepers like Jan Oblak and Thibault Courtois have had moments they’d rather forget. But it’s becoming a pattern with Steffen in big games. In last year’s FA Cup he horribly misjudged a through ball, allowing Chelsea’s Timo Werner and Hakim Zayech to combine for an easy winning goal. In the World Cup qualifying loss to Costa Rica, in which the U.S. sealed their ticket to Qatar anyway, he was caught on his heels with his hands at his sides on Juan Pablo Vargas’ well-taken header to open the scoring. While it would have taken a solid save to keep the ball out of the net, a goalie has to at least be in position to try, which Steffen wasn’t. The sting was worsened by Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas making a string of excellent reaction saves to keep the game scoreless up to that point.
The U.S. was still controlling possession and had the lion’s share of the attacking chances but the game was then put out of reach after another Steffen error, this one a brutal blunder in which he failed to hang on to a harmless cross, leading to a scramble and an ultimately easy tap in for Costa Rica to double their lead.
If Matt Turner has been better, it’s only by a slim margin. When the U.S. traveled to Canada in World Cup qualifying, a match they should have had designs on winning considering the absence of the world class Alphonso Davies, it was Turner who failed to get set on Cyle Larin’s opening goal. While Larin’s shot was well-hit, the replay showed Turner would get his fingertips on the ball despite not being able to muster any kind of a dive. An awful error? No, but once again, the pain was made worse later on in the game when Canada’s Milan Borjan produced a beautiful one-handed parry of Weston McKennie’s goalbound header to preserve Canada’s lead. Lev Yashin himself could have done nothing to prevent Canada’s stoppage time 2-0 strike, but it was nearly academic anyway as a few minutes earlier, Turner nearly gifted a goal to the Canadians by fumbling a completely harmless shot right into the path of an oncoming striker, who somehow contrived to smash the ball right back into Turner.
The U.S. is getting better, no doubt. But if they want to progress farther than they ever have come Qatar, they will need their goalkeeping to steal them a game, as Tim Howard so nearly did against Belgium in 2014, but for Chris Wondolowski to blast over when scoring seemed easier. Right now, their goalkeeping looks more likely to lose them a game than win them one.
There isn’t an easy solution. There’s no explanation why Horvath hasn’t gotten a shot at it. Chituru Odunze and the aforementioned Slonina may very well be too young for the big stage. It’s possible an MLS veteran like Sean Johnson or Bill Hamid could step up, but neither looks great so far this season.
One thing there is as a silver lining is time. The games don’t start tomorrow. Someone can step to the forefront and stand out. But step one is for Berhalter and company to admit there’s a problem. And they haven’t, and likely won’t.
Got a solution we haven’t thought of? Let us know in the comments. Thanks for reading.