Coach question: Horvath or Stephen in goal for America?

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Invisible for most of World Cup qualifying, Ethan Horvath or Zack Stephens are likely to play a key role in the final stages.

With English clubs backed up for most of the season, one of them is likely to score at the Estadio Azteca on Thursday night when the United States opens the final qualifying window against Mexico.

Both made big saves in Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final: Horvath came out of his line to pull off Roberto Firmino’s chip effort in a 1–0 defeat at Nottingham Forest’s tour of Liverpool, and Stephen Che Adams’s point-blank. Walked down to block the shot as Manchester City won 4-1 at Southampton.

“Of course, it leads to confidence,” Stephen said on Wednesday. “It gives you confidence, and it gives coaches confidence that they can trust you back.”

Goalkeepers have been the backbone of the American team for decades: Tony Meola in 1990 and 1994 was followed by Casey Keller in 1998, Brad Friedel in 2002, Keller in 2006, and Tim Howard in 2010 and ’14.

Stephens was touted as the top American goalkeeper going into qualifying, but was turned down by a back cramp last September. American coach Greg Berhalter picked New Englander Matt Turner to start at Horvath in the first three qualifiers, and Turner was on goal for the first five before he was partially replaced by Stephens due to better footwork.

When a back spasm sidelined Stefan again, Turner took over for three winter matches and then finalized a high-profile transfer to Arsenal this summer. But Turner injured an ankle during a presidential scrimmage with Revolution on February 9 and stayed out.

Horvath has made seven consecutive club appearances after missing the game for five months. He is back on the roster for the first time since September and is joined by New York City’s Sean Johnson, who has been with America for all five windows but hasn’t made an international appearance in two years.

If Horvath does play, it will be the first time three goalkeepers have appeared in a qualifying cycle for the Americas since Marcus Hahnemann began in Guatemala in September 2005, four days after the Americans secured a berth instead of Keller or Howard.

“We’re watching the game. We’re looking at what kind of services we’re going to face, what kinds of shots we’re going to face, which goalkeeper can play better off the back,” said Berhalter “It’s not an easy decision. I think they are both playing well.”

Left back Antoine Robinson seems to have similar styles and abilities.

“They are both excellent shot stoppers and they are both comfortable playing from behind”, he said. “The strategy for us doesn’t really change with which one of them is playing in the goal.”

Horvath, a 26-year-old from Highlands Ranch in Colorado, joined Molde, Norway, in 2013. He moved to Belgium’s Club Brugge in January 2017, gaining Champions League and Europa League experience, and moved to England in the second leg of England last summer.

He was limited to three appearances in the first six months of this season, then caught his break when Bryce Samba received a red card against Stoke on 12 February, and a three-match suspension as well.

“You never know what’s going to happen. You have to be prepared for anything,” Horvath said. “You go in and do gym work before training, extra laps. Nice to know it’s going to happen.” There were three guaranteed games, and my mindset was going into that, let’s see where it takes us.”

Horvath filled in for one win and two draws. He was watching a video with goalkeeper coach Danny Alcock a day or two before the FA Cup match against Huddersfield on 3 March when he was told head coach Steve Cooper was leaving him inside.

Horvath has made seven straight starts, including five in the league championship.

“I’m very grateful, and I’ll keep doing what I’m doing,” Horvath said.

Coatesville, Pennsylvania native Stephen, who turns 27 on April 2, played two seasons with the University of Maryland, then signed with Freiburg, Germany, in January 2014. He did not appear in the first team match and joined Berhalter’s Columbus crew. July 2016.

After getting the starting job the following year, Steffen signed with Manchester City in 2019. He was loaned to Fortuna Düsseldorf and made his first 17 Bundesliga appearances before suffering a knee injury at the end of the season.

He has been with City since the start of the 2020-21 season, serving as a backup for Brazil’s Ederson. He has played five Cup games this season, but only one Premier League and one Champions League, back spasm and then a shoulder injury during training, last weekend’s match being his first since February 5.

Back in June, Stefan made his CONCACAF Nations League Final debut against Mexico in Denver but had to quit during the second half after injuring his left knee while running out of line as a regular. With about 20 family and friends in the match, Horvath saved Andrés Guardado’s penalty kick in the 124th minute and America won 3–2.

“To have this kind of experience that you can fall back on and remember how it happened and what you did helps for any game for the future,” Horvath said.

After being sidelined by Berhalter in October, November and January, he stayed late in England to stream most of the US qualifiers.

“I watched with pride, because I want the boys to be there,” said Horvath. “I want us to qualify for the World Cup.”

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