More than a year later, Ethan Horvath’s national team number is finally announced again.
It was early June 2021 when the goaltender was enjoying a Hollywood moment that looked like it could change his trajectory in the US. Starter Zach Steffen was injured in the second half of the CONCACAF Nations League final against Mexico, while Horvath, who grew up in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, entered Mile High and then sensationally saved Andrés Guardado’s penalty in extra time. The Americans resisted and won the trophy.
“To come have a performance like that in his hometown, it’s stuff that storybooks write about,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said that night.
Horvath was suddenly back in the national team fold following about two years away. And after too much time on the bench at Club Brugge, he was on his way to England and Nottingham Forest. Things were looking up. A few days after the euphoric win over Mexico, Horvath went the full 90 minutes in a friendly shutout of Costa Rica. Steffen was about to spend another season on the periphery at Manchester City. Matt Turner had one cap to his name, and Sean Johnson had yet to backstop New York City FC to an MLS Cup.
The World Cup was in 18 months, and Horvath appeared to be back in the U.S. picture. That storybook pretty much ended there, however. He started just 10 times for a Forest side that earned promotion to the Premier League. Turner was outstanding in the Gold Cup and wound up battling Steffen for the No. 1 job during World Cup qualifying. And although he was called up by Berhalter a couple more times, Horvath never played.
Enough time passed for the U.S. situation in goal to be settled. Horvath likely wondered if he’d get another shot. But uncertainty remains a year later, and so the American goalkeeper roulette wheel is spinning yet again. No one is certain where the ball might land when the U.S. opens the World Cup against Wales on Nov. 21. What has traditionally been a position of strength for the American men is now a source of some concern.
Tuesday night in El Salvador, Horvath will get his long-awaited chance when the U.S. meets La Selecta in its second game of the 2022-23 Concacaf Nations League. It’s also the fourth and final match of this international window. Berhalter’s decision to start Horvath is as much about his potential as it is a commentary on the goalie depth chart. The position, and the careers of the men who may fill it, are in flux.
“We have to take them both into consideration, and it may not be perfect,” Berhalter said Monday when asked how he’ll weigh a goalkeeper’s club form against his national team experience when making his World Cup decisions. “It may come down to small differences amongst the group. But right now, it’s really too early to give an in-depth comment on it because we just don’t know what their situation is going to be.”
At the moment, Horvath, Steffen and Turner, who’s on his way to Arsenal, are all slated to be Premier League backups. Johnson is the only regular starter, but for a long time he didn’t seem to be anything beyond Berhalter’s third choice. Both Steffen and Turner had their ups and downs during qualifying, and while Steffen appeared to lock down the starting U.S. job last fall, some back trouble and then a couple shaky moments in March opened it back up. Berhalter had expressed concern about Turner’s comfort with the ball at his feet and his role in the American buildup, but the departing New England Revolution star has been working on that and is expected to do so even more frequently at Arsenal. The analytics (advanced stats like goals prevented, etc.) also favored Turner during qualifying.
Speaking at the start of the current window, the second-to-last before the World Cup, Turner said he’s eager to bet on himself in England after a dizzying rise from undrafted afterthought to MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and Gold Cup Golden Glove winner.
“Being a week-in, week-out starter in MLS didn’t guarantee me to be a starter for the national team and going to the World Cup. I obviously want to play games, so I needed to shake things up in my club career and I think this is a positive step forward for me in the long term and in the immediate future,” he said in Cincinnati.
“If you’re going to tell me that somebody’s No. 1, or a position is completely set, I’m not sure I really buy that because in professional sports, you always have to show up and you always have to put your best performances out there if you want to maintain,” Turner continued. “You can have something, but you need to maintain it and be consistent over a number of games, a number of years, whatever it is.”
“I’m very happy to get the start [Tuesday],” Horvath emphasized. “It’s one of three last games before we head to the World Cup.”
“Every roster spot is going to be carefully considered, and what’s worked in the past may not work now,” Berhalter said Monday when discussing his keepers. “I’ve seen Spain, where they’ve taken a really old goalkeeper [to the World Cup] because he [Pepe Reina] means a lot to the group. I see other teams take young goalkeepers. And for us, nothing’s set in stone right now.
“What we know is we want, A; guys that can perform up to the level, and B; guys that are bought into the team ethos and and fit the culture of our group. So we’ll make a decision based on those two parameters and hopefully get it right.”
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