ORLANDO — In the weeks, days and hours leading to a U.S. men's national soccer team match, speculation and intrigue about Bruce Arena's lineup swells among supporters and pundits alike.
Will Christian Pulisic play on the wing or in the middle? Has Jozy Altidore retained striker's honors? What is the partnership in central defense?
Over the course of Arena's second coaching reign, the guesswork has spread to goalkeeper, a position that, historically here and abroad, has a definitive hierarchy and stokes little conjecture.
Through World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup this year, Arena has alternated between his internationally seasoned candidates, Tim Howard and Brad Guzan. And with the qualifying campaign entering the final, tense stretch – two matches over five days to determine whether the Americans secure an automatic berth in the 2018 tournament in Russia – all eyes are on Arena's decision ahead of Friday's showdown against Panama at Orlando City Stadium.
Howard, the starter at the World Cups in South Africa and Brazil, appears to be the front-runner. He was, after all, Arena's pick in the first game of two previous sets of qualifying matches, both at home. Each time, though, Guzan started the second outing, each on the road.
But with so much at stake, a strong performance Friday by Howard – or Guzan, if he is the choice – perhaps would earn that individual a second call Tuesday when the Americans visit Trinidad and Tobago. They need two victories to guarantee passage, though a victory and draw might do the trick as well. There's also a chance they will end up in a two-leg playoff against Australia or Syria next month.
Asked early in the week about the goalie situation, Arena said: "We will make a decision on our goalkeeper on Thursday."
U.S. teammates say they have equal confidence in Howard and Guzan, that both communicate well and exude confidence.
"When you look closely, they have different qualities and characteristics, but nothing changes," captain Michael Bradley said. "Both Timmy and Brad are so important for our team, both on and off the field. They have a great relationship, which shines through. The way they are able to compete and push each other while still be best of friends is something that is so important for our group."
Both left longtime jobs in England to return to MLS in the past 16 months, Howard last summer to join the Colorado Rapids and Guzan this summer to play for expansion Atlanta United. Howard, 38, is the more savvy one, while Guzan, five years younger, might have athletic advantages and is better with his feet. Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando, 38, is the third goalkeeper in camp.
"There really isn't much of a difference, which is part of why we have hard decisions to make," goalkeepers coach Matt Reis said. "The one thing that puts Tim over the top is the big games. There's no recreating that experience."
Howard's groin surgery last winter affected his form and, according to Arena, made it more difficult for him to play two international matches amid a short turnaround. That opened the door for Guzan during the previous two sets of qualifiers.
"He's done a remarkable job coming back in such a short period of time, but it hasn't allowed for him to be fully back to where he is going to be," Arena said last month of Howard. "When you have those kinds of surgeries . . . [players] play, but they're not 100 percent."
Howard needs a full offseason to return to normal, Arena added.
Nonetheless, Howard started both March qualifiers. He and Guzan split the June games, with the latter playing in the most harrowing of the 10 qualifiers (at Mexico).
During the Gold Cup, after Guzan served as the prime goalkeeper in the group stage, Howard joined the squad for the knockout stage while Guzan integrated with Atlanta United.
In September, Howard was not at his best during a 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica in Harrison, New Jersey, and Guzan received the nod at Honduras, a 1-1 draw that rescued the Americans from a catastrophic position heading into the last two matches.
Despite the uncertain depth chart and fierce competition for playing time, Reis said, Howard and Guzan support one another.