MARK BERSON remembers the game well. The conditions were unusually hot and humid when his South Carolina men’s soccer team played a mid-October game at Furman in 2003.
Early in the game, USC freshman goalkeeper Brad Guzan strolled out from his goal to play a ball, took a knee to the head and remained stunned and dazed for a few minutes. Eventually, USC’s athletics trainer cleared Guzan to remain in the game, which he did all the way through two overtimes without allowing a goal.
“I remember that day how tough it was to play at all,” Berson says. “He fought through that and played great that day. That mental and physical toughness from him was always huge.”
It is a characteristic that has helped shape Guzan into one of the world’s top goalies, one who is likely to again serve as the backup next month to Tim Howard for the United States Men’s National Team at the World Cup in Brazil.
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Guzan survived the final World Cup roster cut Thursday to will continue a four-tournament run for former USC stars. Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis played for the U.S. in the 2002 World Cup. Wolff again made the team in 2006, and Guzan first made the squad in 2010.
“It’s an amazing thing to see,” Berson says. “It really makes you proud.”
Long before the youngster grew to be 6-foot-4, Berson first spotted Guzan as a freshman in high school, playing for the Chicago Magic Soccer Club. From the outset, Berson and every other college coach in the country recognized that Guzan possessed outstanding reflexes and was what those coaches call “a shot-stopper.”
Advancing from high school and club-level soccer to college can be intimidating for some. Not Guzan. He cottoned to the idea of being USC’s starting goalkeeper as a freshman, and by the time he completed two seasons for the Gamecocks, he had played every minute of every game.
“The biggest thing we worked on was dealing with crosses,” Berson says of Guzan’s arrival at USC. “By then, he was a pretty big guy. Then it was just a matter of giving him a lot of repetitions, working on his footwork and cleaning up a few things.”
Guzan earned second-team All-America honors as a sophomore and led USC to the NCAA tournament. He also was a semifinalist for national player of the year. By then, he was ready to play professionally.
Berson says Guzan’s appeal to professional soccer teams was as much his exceptional footwork as his shot-stopping ability. That led Berson to play Guzan in the field for USC one spring to see what he could do, and to allow the backup goalie playing time.
Guzan was the second pick in the 2005 MLS Superdraft, the earliest a goalkeeper ever had been selected. He struggled as a rookie playing for the expansion Chivas club. Berson said starting as a goalkeeper during your first season of pro ball is similar to a rookie quarterback playing in the NFL.
Injuries cost Guzan playing time in his second pro season, then he came into his own, earning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honors with a league-best 0.93 goals against average as Chivas won the Western Conference championship.
Guzan has since played with English Premier League club Aston Villa and with the U.S. National Team. Only recently did Guzan take advantage of his time as the understudy to Howard on the U.S. club. With Howard sidelined by a back injury, Guzan’s play was pivotal in qualifying during a 1-0 victory against Costa Rica and a 0-0 draw with Mexico.
“He’s absolutely earned his stripes for the United States on numerous occasions over the last couple of years,” Berson says. “So, we’re really, really lucky to have two goalkeepers of that caliber for the U.S.
“In Brad’s case, it’s a testament to his toughness. He is just really a mentally tough, mentally strong guy. He’s just been a rock for South Carolina. He was a rock in his professional career, and now he’s been a rock at the World Cup level.”
In that respect, not much has changed for Guzan since that hot day at Furman in 2003.