Beware the old fountain of youth

April, 7, 2011
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Brad Friedel
Shaun Botterill/Getty ImagesIs Brad Friedel's time up at Villa?

Juan Ponce de Leon should have looked in Ohio. Clearly, the Fountain of Youth percolates in the Buckeye State. This week marks the 25th anniversary of the epic 1986 Masters triumph at age 46 by one of Ohio's favorite sons, Jack Nicklaus. And another Ohioan seemingly defying Father Time, goalkeeper Brad Friedel, could be on the verge of signing a new contract with Aston Villa. But is it really a good idea for an EPL team to re-sign a 40-year-old?

The Bay Village native will turn 40 on May 18, just days before the last day of the EPL season. Without question, Friedel has been the best U.S. soccer export in history. He's played in Denmark and Turkey, as well as in the EPL for Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers and now Villa. He was a key a player on Rovers' 2002 League Cup winning team. On Sunday against Newcastle United, Friedel is set to extend his all-time consecutive Premiership games played streak to 260. In February, the EPL's ironman became the oldest player ever to take the field for Villa. His resume is impressive, but this season he's already conceded 14 more EPL goals than he did all of last season.

Only Blackpool (63 goals) and my beloved Baggies (57) have given up more league goals than Villa's 53 going into this weekend's fixtures. Conceding goals is a collective team failure, but the last line of defense is a key component in the equation. At a certain point experience just becomes age.

Has Friedel reached that point? This is a redoubtable professional who, as a youngster after watching Liverpool beat West Ham United in the 1980 Charity Shield at Wembley Stadium, dreamed of playing for Merseyside's mighty Reds. At the time that was about as likely as the late Woody Hayes singing the Michigan fight song. Yet Friedel went on to do just that, signing with Liverpool in 1997.

He also excelled on the international stage. On Nov. 2, 1997, he famously posted a shutout in the Estadio Azteca as the U.S. gained its only World Cup qualifying point in Mexico -- ever. And in his finest hour between the posts, he stood on his head at the 2002 World Cup, as the U.S. national team advanced to the quarterfinals. His extensive highlight reel from Korea/Japan '02 includes two penalty kick saves, a non-shootout feat matched only by Poland's Jan Tomaszewski in 1974.

So closing the curtains on Friedel's stellar EPL curtain is understandably risky even as he hits the big four-oh. Reportedly, Villa manager Gerard Houllier targeted West Ham goalkeeper Robert Green as Friedel's replacement earlier in the season. Other reports claim that Rangers keeper Allan McGregor was in the frame for a move south of the border. (Personally, I'd call Udinese and ask about the availability of Samir Handanovic.) So far Friedel continues to fight off the competition, be it real or just figments of the media's imagination. After being stuck to the Villa bench for a seeming eternity, former Chivas USA goalkeeper Brad Guzan headed to Hull City on loan in the January transfer window to reboot his career. The notion that Villa want Friedel back for another year indicates that Guzan is not considered the answer at Villa Park.

And the fate of Villa's season may raise many more questions than answers for everyone at the venerable Birmingham club. Villa sits just a perilous two points above the relegation zone (but also just five points behind ninth-place Newcastle.) With games against West Ham, the Albion and Wigan to come, Villa controls its EPL destiny. But if that destiny is Championship football next season, then an old hand like Friedel helping to steady turbulent times could prove invaluable.

But if Villa stays up, it must surely be time to make a change in goal. As Friedel has always had good hands, the wise move would be for the lanky Ohioan to be an insurance policy next season, not a starter.


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