The guy who decided to accost Brad Guzan this time wasn’t a random member of the public who happened to catch a glimpse of the goalkeeper from across the street. He was an employee. And he wasn’t a Villa Park regular. He was a Birmingham City fan. Yet still, the stranger couldn’t resist.
“My wife and I, we had taken our son to a local little theme park and somebody there noticed who I was, one of the workers there, and they then just wanted to speak,” Guzan recalled. “They wanted to vent their frustration. They wanted to vent their frustration on behalf of their friends, then wanted to obviously share their excitement for the terrible season that we’re having.”
This was far from the first time this had happened. Guzan had been approached frequently during Aston Villa’s slide down the Premier League standings, whether it was en route to his car outside the stadium or at a restaurant in town. It wasn’t pleasant, but he understood the environment and the consequences of the choice he made back in 2008, when he left MLS for England. He’d signed up for this.
But his family hadn’t.
“My wife was right next to me,” Guzan said of the theme park incident. “It didn’t go on long. It was maybe a minute or so, maybe two minutes and that point, when I realized where the conversation was going. That’s when we decided to walk away.
“You understand the fans’ passion and you understand their loyalty to the club. You understand their disappointment. We understand that. And again, they then have the right to express that frustration,” Guzan continued. “Sometimes in some ways it’s better than others, in terms of in certain ways as opposed to not-so-great ways. And being over here you understand all that and that’s part of what makes English football, English football. Some individuals express their disappointment better than others.”
This was, to put it mildly, a season of disappointment for Aston Villa and its American goalie.
The club had been struggling under the leadership of former Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner and had finished 15th, 16th or 17th in consecutive seasons. But the Villans had stayed up. Launched in 1874, Aston Villa was a key player in the formation of the Football League 14 years later.
It’s a seven-time champion, a seven-time FA Cup winner and the biggest club in England’s second city. Villa belongs in the top tier. And the 2015-16 campaign kicked off in promising fashion. Buttressed by the signings of England defenders Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott, Ghanaian forward Jordan Ayew and others, Villa won its season opener, 1-0, at Bournemouth. Guzan posted the shutout.
It was his first and only league triumph. The plunge was sudden and precipitous. Villa lost nine of its next 10 games (the other was a draw) and on New Year’s Day, it propped up the table at 1-13-5. Guzan was benched in January and again in late April. But the season had been lost long before that, becoming a gut-wrenching, often humiliating slog toward the inevitable. For the first time since 1987, Villa would be relegated. And in England, you don’t get to leave your frustration at the office. It comes to you. The siege Guzan was under didn’t end when the whistle blew.
U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann believes that pressure and accountability forge better players. He’s often said that the European environment, where athletes hear from fans at the butcher and the baker, represents the truest test of a player’s commitment and resolve. Of course, since it’s 2016, that scrutiny occurs in more modern contexts as well, whether it’s at a theme park, a restaurant, within the pages produced by England’s voracious press or on social media.
“Jurgen is spot on when it comes to the pressures of playing in Europe,” Guzan told SI.com. “It’s no longer just, ‘I’ve got a game on the weekend or whatnot.’ It’s much more than that. You go to the grocery store, you go into town, you go the coffee shop, wherever you are, you’re getting looks—looks from people who are are obviously not happy. You’re getting comments from opposing fans, expressing their satisfaction for how the season’s been. You get it from all angles—and in terms of the stick you’re getting from supporters, both supporters from Aston Villa and supporters not from Villa as well—it does put on that added pressure to try and perform. And again, when things aren’t going your way, it’s a steep hill to climb.”
Guzan’s season hasn’t scared off Klinsmann, who named the 31-year-old the starter for this month’s Copa América Centenario. The tournament kicks off Friday against Colombia in Santa Clara, California. Guzan is a 12-year pro with 45 senior caps, and he’s trained since he was a teenager to maintain a goalkeeper’s confidence and short memory.
Tim Howard, the two-time World Cup starter slated to back up Guzan at the Copa, told ESPN that his colleague has the tools required.
“I've always said that if you could build a goalkeeper and you could take this guy's hands, this keeper's feet—the brain would be Brad's," Howard said. "His mental strength and fortitude is better than anyone I've ever seen. He has the ability to, even in the midst of chaos, to shrug things off and not in a flippant way. For me, he's the best goalkeeping mind I've ever been around.”
That composure helped steel Guzan this season in Birmingham. He lives in the city center and vowed not to allow the chaos to consume him. His habits weren’t going to change.
“We still go about our days,” he said.
But for the goalkeeper, his teammates and everyone associated with the club, there still was no escaping the miserable vortex created by Villa’s impending relegation. Before selling the team last month to Chinese investor Tony Jiantong Xia, Lerner released a statement admitting that, “a nagging sense of inevitability” had set in by mid-September. Manager Tim Sherwood was fired the following month and in early January, Guzan got his own taste of the swelling negativity.
Villa had driven southeast to Buckinghamshire for an FA Cup third-round game at Wycombe Wanderers. Mark Bunn was in net and Guzan took his place on the bench next to Lescott. There, according to reports, they passed the time by chatting and at one point, spitting gum toward the sideline. A group of traveling supporters who felt Guzan and Lescott weren’t displaying the decorum appropriate for players at a club in free fall gathered behind the dugout, yelled and banged on the plexiglass. Guzan and Lescott yelled back. And so “Gumgate” ensued.
Following the 1-1 draw, Richards confronted the fans behind the bench.
“There’s no passion,” one yelled.
“Do you think this is going to help our situation?” Richards asked.
The team needed a gauntlet of security guards to reach its bus safely (again, this was an away game) and Guzan and Lescott quickly became the poster children for Villa’s apparent ambivalence.
Former club captain Andy Townsend told the BBC, “This team hasn't won in 16 games so there is nothing back for those fans at the moment other than misery and mickey-taking when they are going to work on a Monday morning. For [Guzan and Lescott] to allow themselves to get dragged into that nonsense and rubbish is immature and actually it just shows a bit of ignorance at the moment to the situation of where the club are at. To clearly be antagonizing a few fans around them—just back off, apologize and don't be so daft quite frankly.”
Guzan was reluctant to speak about the incident specifically, but he was able to paint a picture of the media maelstrom that surrounds a big club in a relegation fight.
“When you’re going through a season like we did this year, everything gets looked at under a microscope that much more. Every mistake gets analyzed that much more. Everything seems to go against you when you’re at the bottom of the table and you’re fighting for your life …. things just seem not to go away,” he said.
“The world we live in, everybody’s got a platform to express their opinion and obviously writers and the press over here, it’s a very big platform. And when everybody then gets The Sun, the Daily Mail or the [Daily] Mirror, the general public are reading what these writers want to put in there and most of the time it’s whatever they really want. Their job is to get the readers excited.”
As the nightmare season dragged on, a few Villa players made those jobs easier. In March, shortly after fans staged a walk-out during a home loss to Everton, captain Gabriel Agbonlahor—a Birmingham native—was pictured with a shisha pipe while on vacation in Dubai. Later, he was spotted at a nightclub with Richards. Agbonlahor was benched the following month, apparently for fitness issues, and then was photographed partying again on the evening Villa’s relegation was sealed with a loss at Manchester United. He was suspended.
Speaking on Sky Sports, former Villa winger turned pundit Paul Merson said, “In this day and age you've got to have a bit of respect. I’d be sitting down with him now and strongly advising him not to go out in Birmingham for a long time because it will be dangerous for him.”
A week later, Agbonlahor apologized and resigned his captaincy. He's the club’s longest-serving player.
Meanwhile, Lescott was getting hammered for calling the confirmation of Villa’s relegation “a weight off the shoulders.” He already was on fans’ and reporters’ watch list for his tweet featuring a $160,000 Mercedes that was sent out after a 6-0 loss to Liverpool on Valentine’s Day. He claimed it was an accident.
"For me to accidentally tweet a picture is not the biggest crime that a footballer has ever committed. But I can understand the feeling of the fans who feel let down,” Lescott told The Times as the furor continued.
Every misstep is magnified when relegation looms. Every word is analyzed. And there is no escape.
“Every little thing that someone has done this year, to a certain extent, gets blown out of proportion, gets made bigger than it is,” Guzan said. “And again, if we weren’t in the position of being bottom of the table, some stories I don’t even think made headlines.”
The players, as Guzan said, expected it. Some were more careful than others, obviously, but none of them was surprised. The real victims of Villa’s relegation were the people behind the scenes—the support and office staff whose livelihoods were damaged by the won-loss record. Guzan said that players’ contracts often feature wage cuts of up to 50% if their team is sent down. The impact on other employees can be even more severe.
“This is going back to before we were officially relegated, where the concern is that people are going to lose their jobs, redundancies, restructuring at the club,” Guzan said. “If the club is relegated the financial bonus of being in the Premier League is no long there. The financial part changes for everyone, whether it’s employees or players—everybody. There’s a hundred people losing their jobs. Whether it’s at the training ground or Villa Park park in the office, people that have worked at the club 25 years, people who’ve worked at the club 10 years, there are people losing their jobs. And as a player, that’s not a nice to thing to be a part of because obviously we’ve had an effect on that.”
This was, Guzan said, “the worst year to be relegated.” New television rights deals worth an estimated $12 billion kick in next season, and Villa will miss out on that money in the second-tier Championship. Xia is expected to contribute to the coffers, but the punishment for finishing last (Villa wound up 3-27-8) remains brutally tangible.
“Obviously there’s the parachute payment for the teams that are relegated,” Guzan said. “You get a certain amount. There is some money. But obviously, it’s not the same money if you’re still in the [Premier] League. You have to make changes and so, yeah, people have lost their jobs and again, these are people you’re used to seeing at the training ground every single day, and all of sudden you’re not.”
When the debate comes up back home about whether promotion and relegation is the way forward for pro soccer in the U.S. and Canada, Guzan warned that the human cost must be kept in mind.
“In the past, you’ve seen clubs get absolutely killed by relegation,” he said. “There have been teams that haven’t been able to recover from that. You look at a Portsmouth. It wasn’t long ago Wigan was in the Premier League. You look at Bolton. It can absolutely be the killing of a club.”
It’s also, he admitted, really compelling.
“At the same time, you see other clubs that have never tasted the next level and with promotion, now all of sudden that club become rejuvenated. The club’s a bigger club. That club has a bigger support group, fan base, and a club like that can have ambition to potentially sign bigger players, to maybe build a bigger stadium, a nicer training complex,” he said. “Every year, I think fans enjoy the excitement of it, and I’m saying that from a neutral fan standpoint. They enjoy the ride of relegation and promotion. It makes the games quite exciting. I think every game matters. Every game has something in it in terms of playing for something, trying to get a result.”
Could it work in the U.S. and Canada? That’s a question of culture—Guzan said the concept might seem too foreign to most domestic sports fans—and money.
“That’s a big question because of the makeup of [MLS],” Guzan said. “The league is so young compared to the Premier League, compared to English football, compared to German football, France, Italy, compared to European soccer. Obviously when owners first put in huge amounts off money to get the league started and keep the league going, they’re not going to want to just lose that investment. Those were the people who stuck their neck out, believing in this sport and believing it could catch on, which it has has Those individuals and people behind the scenes that made this sport possible to grow in the United States, they’re not going to want to throw away their large financial investment.”
Guzan has one season remaining on his Villa contract. He’s been at the club since leaving Chivas USA in 2008 and said he currently expects to return to Birmingham for preseason. But there’s a new owner and coach (Roberto Di Matteo) at Villa Park, and relegation is a catalyst for change. SI’s Grant Wahl reported last month that at least two EPL teams are interested in Guzan. A move back to MLS also may be an option.
For now, there’s the Copa América. It’s an opportunity for Guzan to show off that focus revered by Howard and demonstrate that he’s better than his 2015-16 record. A strong performance may earn Guzan a transfer back to the Premier League stage or cement his starter’s status heading toward the 2018 World Cup. Either way, he said, playing for his country will help him move on from the miserable season that was.
“The national team environment is very different to the club environment, and so you just hope that once he leaves the club situation behind him, that he kind of settles himself and stays consistent in what he’s doing with the national team,” Klinsmann said this week. “And over the last two years, he’s been very solid, very consistent with us …. I know him pretty well since five years. I know who he is. I know kind of strengths, weaknesses, all that stuff. Brad right now looks very confident, very balanced, and it seems like he left that year behind him.”
Guzan was beaten but remains unbowed, and he’s looking forward to a happy ending to a uniquely trying season.
“For me, my confidence, I don’t think it’s ever wavered,” he said. “I know I have confidence in myself. I know I can do the job. I’ve been over [in England]. I’ve been through a difficult season before. I’ve come back from mistakes that I’ve made and have performed well. That’s part of being a goalkeeper. You have to have thick skin, a short memory and you have to be able to dust yourself off and pick yourself back up again.”