Brad Guzan: Practice and patience making perfect for Villa & USA keeper
These last few days have provided Brad Guzan with a distinct feeling of unfamiliarity.
It happened on Friday night in Colorado and then again in Mexico on Tuesday.
It wasn’t the driving snow that almost caused the abandonment of the USA’s World Cup qualifier with Costa Rica.
It wasn’t the feeling of starting a qualifying game for his country for the first time in three years.
It wasn’t even being part of only the second American team ever to take a point from the Azteca Stadium.
It was none of those.
It was the scoreline in both games that was the reason. Guzan kept two clean sheets.
The four points the USA managed from their 1-0 win over Costa Rica and their goalless draw with the Mexicans, has helped Jurgen Klinsmann’s side make a solid enough start to their World Cup qualifying campaign and, for Guzan, it has given him a break from all that bending down to fetch the ball from the back of his net.
Before his international sojourn, the last time Guzan was not beaten in a match was on December 8 2012 - nearly four, long, months ago.
You won’t hear the man from Chicago complain though.
Guzan has no time for finger pointing or passing of the buck. He is too busy enjoying himself.
Which is some feat, given the season he is enduring with Aston Villa in the Premier League. So brittle have Villa been at the back it’s been like a turkey shoot at Villa Park at times. Indeed Guzan must feel like someone has stuck a bunch of feathers into the back of his shorts and painted a target on his backside.
He has had to pick the ball out of his net 52 times so far - more than anyone else. You wouldn’t blame him for putting in for a pay rise on the grounds of doing the work of at least three men. That’s what is must feel like.
There is a silver lining to this moody-looking nimbus though. Because, although Villa’s defence may collapse faster than a flat-pack occasional table, Guzan has stood firm. He has done so brilliantly. For Guzan, practice is definitely making perfect.
This season has been a horror show for Villa. The team is desperately struggling to avoid being relegated for the first time over a quarter of a century with Paul Lambert - the team’s fourth manager in the last two years - trying to guide his inexperienced side to safety, seemingly against all odds.
He has discovered a banker in Guzan who has kept his pecker up despite the challenge of keeping Villa’s goal in tact - a task that must be on a par with trying to kill a howling gale with a cocktail umbrella. In a three-game run against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Wigan, Guzan picked the ball out of his net 15 times. Yet in all three matches he was Villa’s best player.
Lambert is in no doubt about his keeper’s value: “Brad has been exceptional. I would not swap him for anyone. He has been colossal for this club,” he told the Daily Express.
It makes you wonder where the club would be without him. Cut adrift at the bottom probably.
So commendable has the American been, however, if Villa do drop out of the top flight you feel there will not be a shortage of potential clubs keen to keep Guzan among the elite. Top-notch keepers are hard to find after all.
That Guzan can now start to be considered in that bracket represents a significant rise in his fortunes.
Only a year ago his career was in limbo.
Villa had let his contract run down and Guzan was facing the exit. Yet another fork in the road lay ahead. For Guzan, it must have felt like someone had dropped the cutlery draw.
His first four years at Villa Park were spent behind, first, compatriot Brad Friedel and, then, Shay Given, with Guzan having to be content with his role as a domestic cup and European group-game specialist.
Guzan made the most of that though and it was a cup tie that first got people seriously talking about his potential and his claims to be a serious contender to be number one.
He saved four penalties in Villa’s win at Sunderland in the last 16 of the League Cup in October 2009 (one in normal time and three more in the eventual shoot-out) as Villa went on to make the final at Wembley. Sadly for Guzan, he had to watch as Friedel took his place in the defeat to Manchester United.
A three-month loan spell with Hull came his way the following season - a move that Villa was happy to subsequently extend for most of the rest of that campaign.
The departure of both Martin O’Neill and Friedel did not improve Guzan’s prospects either. New boss Alex McLeish made Given his first signing when he took over meaning another spell on the bench beckoned for Guzan.
A hamstring injury to Given in December 2011 gave Guzan another chance and, with Given out for a month, the American, at last, had an opportunity for run in the side.
The return of Given again curtailed Guzan’s fun and with Villa seemingly content to let him leave for free, Guzan was all set on the next phase of his career.
Lambert, though, made sure that next phase was still with Villa. With a change of manager, Guzan was persuaded to sign on again and, although Given played the first two matches of the current season, it wasn’t long before Guzan was back in the action.
Errors cost Given his place and Guzan was in again.
He has taken his chance too. Ever since his excellent performance at Newcastle where Villa won their first points of the season, he has not looked back.
“Goalkeeping is not about mastering it and now you are the best. You have to be willing to put the work in and continue to fight,” Guzan said recently.
He will need every ounce of that sort of spirit as he embarks on a vital run of eight games with Villa’s Premier League destiny, almost literally, in his hands.
It is not just his club that Guzan is keen to sort out.
Firmly established as the number one there, he has his eyes on replacing Tim Howard permanently in goal for his country.
His 22 caps have taken the best part of seven years to accrue and, as unfortunate as Howard’ back injury is, the place is now Guzan’s to lose.
Howard has an outside chance of being fit for the summer friendlies with Belgium and Germany but, even if he is, he may find Guzan a difficult man to shift.
For Guzan, it’s patience as well as practice that’s making perfect. It should also mean everything becomes more and more familiar form now on.