A monthly feature about a U.S. Men’s, Women’s or Youth National Team player who demands that bright, shining spotlight.
The lasting image of the year for the U.S. netminder bears a time stamp of June 10, 2002, 3:13 a.m. Eastern Time. Clutching a one-goal lead and shouldering the burden of an entire team on his 6’4” frame, Brad Friedel remained undaunted in defiance of one opponent standing 12 yards away and more than 60,000 fans creating thunderous noise within the walls of Daegu Stadium. When Korean midfielder Lee Eul-Yong pushed the ball towards the lower left-hand corner of the goal, Friedel quickly countered in time, launching his almost cartoonishly long arms and massive hands in full extension to bluntly stop the shot in its tracks. The miraculous save not only preserved the USA’s 1-0 lead and eventually a precious point against the host nation, it coalesced years and years of outstanding performances for both club and country into a single defining moment. “Big Brad” finally got his due.
It was a truly remarkable year for the 31-year-old from Bayview, Ohio. For his country, Friedel shone on the world’s greatest stage, starting all five matches in the 2002 World Cup. He posted a 2-2-1 record, including the USA’s first shutout in tournament history, and a 1.40 goals against average in leading the United States to its historic quarterfinal finish in Korea. On the club front, he helped Blackburn Rovers to the Worthington Cup championship and a place in the UEFA Cup. And the numbers only seem to be getting better.
Curiously, the year began with a loss for Friedel against long time fellow U.S. international goalkeeper Kasey Keller on New Year’s Day. Friedel and Rovers would gain revenge nearly two months later, defeating Spurs 2-1 in the Worthington Cup final to give Rovers their first trophy since claiming English Premiership honors in 1995. Friedel ended the 2001-02 campaign with 36 league appearances for Blackburn, leading the team to a 10th place finish in the EPL.
Meantime, preparations were already underway for the United States journey to Korea/Japan. Friedel made the first of his four appearances for the U.S. prior the World Cup against Italy on Feb. 13, falling to the Italians 1-0 in the scenic island of Sicily. With further tune-up appearances against Ireland, Uruguay (in which he was named captain), and Holland, he began to demonstrate the fitness and form that would eventually land him the starting job for the 2002 World Cup. After an intense, month-long regimen with the U.S. team beginning May 1 in Cary, N.C., the two-time World Cup veteran learned just days before the opening match that he had finally landed the coveted spot as the first choice ‘keeper that would face Portugal in the USA’s opening match of the 2002 World Cup.
“I had been working hard in training and I felt pretty confident,” said Friedel. “At the end of the day, it was going to be the manager’s decision, and I was glad to get the opportunity to try and help our team get a result.”
Friedel had a solid performance in the historic 3-2 victory against Portugal, providing a calming presence at the back, as well as providing phenomenal distribution with his booming blasts downfield. Despite being required to make only two saves, his ability to target Brian McBride on goal kicks, punts, and balls from his feet helped the U.S. keep pressure on the Portuguese in their end of the field for much of the match. That effort merely set the stage for the USA’s encounter with Korea.
Facing an ultra-fit Korean team and the pressure of a capacity crowd, Friedel turned in a performance worthy of the ages. Called on to make seven saves, including the penalty kick stop in the 43rd minute, he proved nearly impenetrable against constant waves of Korean attacks. With Friedel backstopping the effort, the United States maintained a dogged defense and survived with a 1-1 draw that would eventually propel them into the knockout round of the tournament. U.S. head coach Bruce Arena lauded yet another big performance from “Big Brad.”
“Clearly, he was the Man of the Match,” quipped Arena, knowingly providing the understatement of the year.
Even in defeat, Friedel managed to garner attention. During the 3-1 loss to Poland in the team’s final opening round match, he merited a place in the annals of World Cup history by joining former Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski as only the second goalkeeper ever to save two penalty kicks in the same World Cup (excluding shootouts) for yet another notch on his 2002 goalpost. But a bigger prize remained.
Facing regional rivals Mexico in the most important match in modern U.S. Soccer history, Friedel presided over the team’s first-ever World Cup shutout. The 2-0 victory was Friedel’s second clean sheet against Mexico in as many matches, and delivered the U.S. its first victory in the knockout phase of the tournament in 72 years. Despite a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals, the United States, and Friedel in particular, had excelled beyond expectations.
“We had a great ride. The satisfying thing is we came home knowing that we probably could have gone a little further,” said Friedel. “It's frustrating but satisfying knowing we never once got played off the park over here. We came home with our heads held high.”
Friedel returned to England with the long overdue admiration of the English press and fans, and it proved to be only the beginning. Continuing his fine form, Friedel turned in one outstanding performance after another. He started in 20 of 21 matches in the first half of the 2002-03 season – he missed only one league match, despite having knee surgery! – posting seven shutouts and leading Rovers to victories against Arsenal and Manchester United and the 10th spot in the Premiership table. His performance in the 2-1 win against the Gunners led manager Graeme Souness to proclaim Friedel “the best goalkeeper in England.” The praise hasn’t stopped there.
“Without a doubt, the best keeper in the Premiership,” said Bolton boss Sam Allardyce, seconding Souness’ bold statement. “It must have been a crushing blow for Liverpool, who have spent $20 million on two keepers, to let him go. Neither of them are as good as he is.”
“Friedel must have got changed in a telephone box today,” gushed Southampton manager Gordon Strachan. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, when he takes his shirt off, there’s a blue jersey with an ‘S’ underneath it.”
The accolades continued to pile up as the Premiership headed into the Winter Break. He was recently named the BBC Northwest Footballer of the Year (the runners-up were Michael Owen and David Beckham). He was also voted the Best Goalkeeper in the Premiership in a Sky Sports online pole, and has been featured in newspapers and magazines across the U.K. Back in the U.S., Friedel is in the running to win U.S. Soccer’s 2002 Chevy Male Athlete of the Year and along with it, a mammoth TrailBlazer that will be just his size.
Through all the glory and praise, he remains affable and humble. After years of facing critics both at home and abroad, the year 2002 may have seemed like a breakout performance, but Friedel insists that the only thing that has changed about his game over the years is the attention it now receives.
“I never doubted myself,” Friedel said in a recent interview with the Sunday Times in London. “My situation was like the USA team before the World Cup. We knew we had ability, and one day we'd prove it.”
Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (What's to be in 2003)
2) In Threes (w/ MNT goalkeeper Tim Howard)
3) D.J. for a Day (w/ U-20 MNT defender Chad Marshall)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ WNT midfielder Angela Hucles)
5) Mark That Calendar (Back to Bidness…)
6) Superstar!!! (w/ MNT goalkeeper Brad Friedel)
7) FAN Point/Counterpoint (Reviews of "Our Way")
8) "You Don't Know Jack (Marshall)" (2002 WNT Trivia)
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