- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

Years ago, finding talented homegrown soccer players in the United States was as difficult as spotting Americans playing cricket. There was a myth that Americans were only good in sports in which the hands were primarily used.

That was 20 years ago. Since then, the U.S. men’s national soccer team reached the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup, proving to the world that Americans are pretty good with their feet, too.

But every myth has an element of truth, and if you look at the most successful American soccer players today, they are the guys using their hands — the goalies.

Overseas, where the big money can be made, American goalkeepers are flourishing.

In the much-touted English Premier League, 32-year-old Brad Friedel, the U.S. team’s World Cup goalie, is in a class of his own with Blackburn Rovers. And at legendary London club Tottenham Hotspur, Kasey Keller, 33, has firmly secured the starting role. In the English First Division, Marcus Hahnemann played 41 games for Reading FC last season, helping the Royals reach the playoffs and earn a promotion to the Premier League. Hahnemann made headlines by posting a seven-game shutout streak.

In France, former San Jose Earthquakes goalie Joe Cannon, 28, is at First Division club RC Lens, and in Chile, Memphis-born Jonny Walker, 28, plays goalie for famed club Colo Colo.

Now comes the news that Manchester United, the biggest club on the planet, is on the verge of signing 24-year-old goalie Tim Howard, who plays for the MetroStars in Major League Soccer.

“You have to give credit to Kasey and Brad, who were the first guys to go over there and open the doors for others,” Chicago Fire goalie Zack Thornton said.

If the Howard transfer — estimated at $2.5million to $3million — goes through, it certainly would prove that MLS is fast becoming a breeding ground for talented goalies.

So why are American goalies so good and in such demand?

“It has to be the fact that we grow up playing a lot of sports — basketball, American football, you know — just playing catch,” Hahnemann said this week. “We throw the ball in football and basketball and develop a lot of hand and eye coordination in sports. You look at England, and they don’t grow up playing other sports [except soccer], so Americans have that cross-training thing going on.”

Former D.C. United goalie Mike Ammann, who retired earlier this year because of injury, agrees.

“The obvious thing is the eye-hand coordination due to playing multiple sports in the U.S.,” said Ammann, who played for Charlton Athletic in England from 1994 to 1996. “When I was in England, I used to play basketball with the guys, and they would be stumbling to catch the ball. It’s just something they are not accustomed to on a regular basis, whereas we play baseball, football and are always catching things.”

Friedel was so good at Blackburn during the 2002-2003 season that the Bay Village, Ohio, native was voted the top goalie in the 20-team Premier League.

“I’m no longer thought of as a foreigner in this league, which is an achievement in itself,” Friedel told the Associated Press.

And let’s not forget that it was Friedel who saved two penalty kicks at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea.

“American goalies are very smart,” said Milutin Soskic, the U.S. team’s goalie coach. “Their physical condition is perfect. Five or six of the goalies playing in MLS today could play in Europe for clubs like Juventus.”

The U.S. team’s goalie roster is so deep that coach Bruce Arena was able to let Friedel and Keller take a summer break. Arena called up Howard, Hahnemann and Cannon to the 23-man U.S. team for the FIFA Confederations Cup in France, which begins Thursday for the Americans, when they take on Turkey. Arena is also looking toward the 2006 World Cup.

“In my mind, I am still not convinced that Friedel and Keller will be around in 2006, if we will be there,” Arena said this week in a conference call. “They will be 36 and 35 years old.”

Still the buzz at the moment is all about Howard and his possible move to Manchester. The English media has been making a big deal about the 6-foot-3, 210-pound goalie’s struggle with Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by tics and vocal outbursts, such as swearing. “Disabled goalie is lined up to play for Manchester United,” blared one ridiculous headline in the London’s Daily Mail last month.

At Manchester, Howard likely would start out as the third-string goalie behind Fabien Barthez and Roy Carroll, and Arena is concerned he may not get enough playing time.

“If this eventual transfer to Man U. happens and Tim never steps on the field again, I don’t think that is going to help his progress,” Arena said.

If Howard does get playing time at Manchester, the pressure will be intense. More than 67,000 fans will be watching his every move, not to mention the millions watching on TV around the world.

And the North Brunswick, N.J., native is not the first American-born keeper to try out for the job at Manchester. California-born goalie Paul Rachubka, 22, who came to England when he was 6, played three games for the Red Devils in 2000.

It used to be that the popular position on the field was the forward role, but in America, role models like Friedel and Keller have young players keen on being goalkeepers.

“I think it’s a prestigious thing for kids in this country to be the goalie,” Ammann said. “It’s not just ‘hey, throw the fat kid in goal’ anymore. You have to have a good athlete now that can perform back there.”

As for the future, D.C. United’s Nick Rimando, the New England Revolution’s Adin Brown and the Dallas Burn’s D.J. Countess all are waiting should any overseas club make a call.

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