Cover photo belongs to Christian Petersen/Getty
This October the US Men's National Team will play their final two World Cup qualifying games. Assuming they're able to slip pass CONCACAF giants Panama and Trinidad and Tobago, the USMNT will have only eight months to figure out their goalkeeper position. It’s no secret that the goalkeeping position is in historic disarray and fans are far from comfortable when looking down the depth chart.
Name an American goalkeeper and there’s a reason to be skeptic with them in goal. Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, and Nick Rimando seem lightyears from their prime. For every positive sign they do happen to show, they're just as quick to pair it with a misplay. David Bingham has been on the bench since early August and while some are upset that Bill Hamid has missed a chance to impress foreign scouts, the DC goalkeeper has bucked a move overseas for half a decade now and is wrapping up a forgettable 2017 campaign.
Even though we’ve seen positive signs from other American goalkeeper darlings like Sean Johnson, Ethan Horvath, Luis Robles, Joe Bendik, and Tim Melia, they only combine for only nine caps between them and don’t bring in the experience that is desired for such a high stakes tournament. The unfortunate reality is that the USMNT has never gone into a World Cup with this much uncertainty in their goalkeeper position.
Fears of the 2018 tournament fall on the heels of last World Cup’s fanfare. It's rare to witness a losing goalkeeper be enshrined forever in gif-form, but Howard pulled it off despite the 2-1 loss to Belgium.
Of course that’s not the only notable World Cup by an American goalkeeper. In 2002 Brad Friedel became only the second goalkeeper ever to save two penalties in a World Cup and helped the US get to the quarterfinals. Tony Meola led the 1994 squad to their first knockout stage appearance since 1930, where Jimmy Douglas notched the first shutout in World Cup history. And of course there was Frank Borghi in 1950, who shutout the English in an improbable 1-0 win.
Perhaps the most calming realization USMNT fans can have about the discourse is that a number of World Cup runs have been largely unaffected by American goalkeepers. Much to Kasey Keller’s disdain, the 1998 and 2006 collapses would not have been avoided by better goalkeeping. It didn't matter how well he played, the US were struggling across (and off) the pitch. 2010 featured good but not great goalkeeping by Howard, as they were ousted by Ghana for a second straight World Cup. And in 1990 everyone was just happy to be in the tournament, regardless of the eight goals conceded.
There are only a handful of outstanding goalkeeper performances every World Cup and even top goalkeepers can have forgettable tournament performances, if not disastrous. In 2014 we witnessed Spain's Iker Casillas - a five time World’s Best Goalkeeper - not be able to finish the summer tournament due to such a poor performance.
There are no guarantees in goalkeeping. Good goalkeepers have bad tournaments and bad goalkeepers can look great if they happen to be in the right place at the right time. Performance usually matches a player's talent level but World Cup teams play only three to seven games. Anything can happen for a goalkeeper in such a small window.
For a nation in transition between goalkeeping eras, expectations call for a goalkeeper who will keep the team afloat and not Robert Green points away against opponents. Fans deserve a USMNT starter who will limit turnovers, not get lost on crosses, and save the reasonable shots. If we’re lucky we'll see one outstanding save keep the USMNT in a game just a little bit longer than they should have been. Perhaps in 2022 we can raise our expectations for our goalkeepers, but until then calmness and stability between the posts is the goal.