Former Gamecock Guzan making most of opportunity in Gold Cup

U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan (1) reaches for the ball next to Jamaica’s Joel McAnuff (10) for the ball in the front of the net during the first half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer semifinal on Wednesday in Atlanta. AP Photo/John Bazemore

It was early in his freshman season that Brad Guzan proved his toughness to South Carolina soccer coach Mark Berson.

The Gamecocks were playing on the road against Furman with game-time temperatures hovering above 90 degrees when the Paladins got a breakaway scoring chance on the young South Carolina goalie.

The collision between Guzan, now the starting goalie for the U.S. Men’s National Team in this month’s Gold Cup tournament, and the Paladins forward could be heard outside of the stadium. Guzan, who made the save, laid on the field for several moments, but eventually picked himself up and returned to the net.

At halftime, Berson looked over at Guzan, who had a wet towel draped over his head, and wondered if he would be able to return to the game. Not only did Guzan play in the second half, he made several key saves over the final 45 minutes to secure a Gamecocks victory.

Any doubts about Guzan’s toughness were answered on that sweltering afternoon in Greenville.

“Brad got absolutely crushed on the play,” Berson said. “Any other goalie would probably have come out of the game at that moment, but Brad stuck it out and finished the half. I think the heat index was well above 100 degrees, so when I saw him with that towel over his head, I thought he was done. Brad just shook it off and played a great second half. Brad is just really, really tough both mentally and physically and you absolutely have to have that when you’re a goalie.”

Almost from the moment that Guzan stepped onto the campus at South Carolina, Berson knew his young keeper was going to be a special player one day. Guzan had that “it” factor that as a coach Berson said was hard to ignore.

“From the first practice, from the first game you just knew right away that Brad was going to have a huge impact on the program,” Berson said in a telephone interview from Columbia this week. “Even as a freshman he had a commanding presence about him and his size and athleticism were evident from the very beginning. We knew pretty early that Brad was going to be a very special player for us.”

After spending just two seasons with the Gamecocks, Guzan, an All-American in 2004, was selected with the No. 2 overall pick by Major League Soccer’s USA Chivas in 2005. At the time, Guzan was the highest-drafted goalie in MLS history. Guzan spent the better part of three seasons with Chivas before the English Premier League’s Aston Villa came calling, paying the MLS club more than $1 million in July of 2008.

When Guzan arrived in the EPL he found himself behind another American keeper, Brad Friedel. He saw sporadic duty with his new team and was even loaned to Hull City, which was in England’s Championship League, a step down from the EPL in 2011. He returned to Aston Villa later that year and over the next few months solidified a starting spot. He has appeared in more than 130 matches since earning his starting job and even won the club’s player of the year honors in 2013.

“It’s a tremendous feeling that one of our guys have gone on and achieved so much and to think that we played a small part in their success,” Berson said. “He’s just too good as a No. 2 goalie for teams to let him go. It’s just so nice to see good things happen to good people and he is one of the best.”

The same patience that Guzan showed with Aston Villa has served him well with the U.S. National team. He joined the team in 2006, but played sparingly, backing up Tim Howard in net. After not having played in more than two years and with Howard suffering from a bad back, Guzan stepped into the starting lineup for two crucial World Cup qualifying matches in 2014. He shut out Costa Rica, 1-0, in a blizzard outside of Denver, and then less than a week later earned a scoreless draw against Mexico.

“I think people forget what a massive game that was for the U.S. team against Costa Rica,” Berson said. “The U.S. needed a result to get through qualification and Brad really stepped under dire circumstances and adverse weather conditions and played an unbelievable game. I think he showed what kind of character he has and his goal-keeping ability.”

Despite spending nearly a decade with the U.S. National team, this summer’s Gold Cup tournament has been Guzan’s first extended playing time with the squad. After last summer’s World Cup, Howard announced he was going to take a year-long “sabbatical” from international play, leaving the door open for Guzan to take over the starting role for the Gold Cup.

When the team gathered for their first practice last summer, U.S. Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann quickly named Guzan the team’s starter in net.

“We are excited to have Brad Guzan back in our group. He will be the starter in the Gold Cup,” Klinsmann told reporters last month. “He is our No. 1, so it’s really important for him to pick up games with us.”

With Klinsmann as his top supporter, Guzan has responded with some of his best performances in international competition. He gave up just two goals in group play and has recorded two shutouts in five overall matches. The U.S. needed every save from Guzan as their young defensive core and sluggish attack tried to find their footing during the tournament.

The U.S. advanced out of the group stage with a 2-0-1 mark and easily beat Cuba, 6-0, in the quarterfinals. Jamaica shocked the U.S. 2-1 in the semifinals before a sellout crowd at the Georgia Dome this past Wednesday.

The Jamaicans’ second goal came on a free kick after Guzan was called for a handball as he attempted to make a long throw to forward Aron Johannsoon late in the first half.

“In all of my years of being professional, I don’t think I’ve seen that call,” Guzan told reporters after the game. “Especially after seeing a still image of it — maybe an inch or two (outside the 18-yard box). If the linesman is going to make that decision, I think he has to be right on the top of the 18. I saw where he was, and he was probably about two or three yards behind it. Those decisions sometimes don’t go in your favor. There’s a free kick, you’ve got defend it and he’s taken it well.”

The U.S. will face Panama in the Gold Cup’s third place game Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. at PPL Park in Chester, Penn.

“I think everyone is disappointed with the loss because we played some of our best (soccer) in this game,” Guzan said. “We combined well, we got forward, we created chances, but ultimately putting the ball in the back of the net wasn’t meant to be. We’ll pick ourselves up. It doesn’t make us a bad team. It doesn’t erase a lot of the good stuff that we’ve done. Just like when we beat Germany and Holland this one game won’t define us. We’re disappointed in a loss in a tournament that’s very important to us, but now we’ve got to pick ourselves up and get ready for the next match.”