Brad Friedel. Yes, he’s still playing.
At the age of 43, the goalkeeper is on the verge of ending his professional career, which has lasted almost a quarter of a century. He is relaxed and at ease with what lies ahead.
Friedel has spent the last 20-plus years playing in England — for Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur — while also heading to three World Cups with the U.S. national team. Due to the decades spent in England, he has seen his accent become one of the finest examples of a “not quite British, not quite American” accents known to mankind, something he laughs off with a shrug.
Yet despite spending all of that time overseas, Friedel is still American. And as he slumps back in the sofa at Spurs’ training ground and recalls everything from his early days at UCLA, to his love for basketball, to his admiration for Major League Soccer, one gets the feeling that his strong connection to his homeland has never left this Ohio native. His family is settled in England but he is now ready to head home. And Freidel confirmed as much recently by signing a long-term deal with FOX Sports that will see him join their soccer coverage as an analyst, as he edges closer to ending his illustrious playing career and returning to the U.S.
“I’ve been speaking with FOX for the last couple of years and coinciding it (with) when I am finally going to hang up the gloves,” Friedel said. “It is an exciting time for myself. It has been many, many years living outside of the United States so I’m excited to come back and especially excited to go back to Los Angeles where I started my career a long, long time ago.”
While chatting, Friedel often answers questions with the term, “Listen,” something that’s very much worth doing when speaking with the veteran goalkeeper, as the man who could become the oldest player in Premier League history later this season has an incredible story to tell.
NOT YOUR AVERAGE COLLEGE KID
It’s a miracle that Friedel ever became a professional goalkeeper. Not because he didn’t have the talent. It just required more than a few lucky breaks along the way.
As a teenager he was not heavily recruited by college programs. He played other, more traditional, American sports such as basketball, ice hockey and tennis. But at the age of 17, he was spotted at the end of a small tournament in Virginia by a coach from UCLA. The rest, as they say, is history.
“He was the last player on my list to see play that day before I caught a flight home,” said Dean Wurzberger, now a coach with U.S. Soccer, recalling the first time he saw Friedel play. “I had a chance to speak to his youth coach earlier that day and he told me he was a player worth seeing and that he had great future potential. I was rushing to catch my flight home but caught the first half of his match and saw that he was a player with great physical tools, and it was clear we (UCLA) needed to follow up and see him play again and find out more about him.”
Wurzberger and Sigi Schmid did just that, with the current Seattle Sounders boss heading out on a trip to watch Friedel even after Wurzberger had left the program.
“Dean first saw him and then I knew he was playing in Cleveland,” recalls Schmid. “One of my former players, Doug Swanson, was playing professional indoor soccer in that area. So I sent him out to watch Brad play for his high school team and he called me back and said, ‘He’s pretty good.’”
The head coach at UCLA, Schmid was a busy man in the middle of a hectic season. But he had to see Friedel for himself.
“The way the college season worked then, you never flew out to look at players during the season because it was so busy,” Schmid explains. “(But) Brad is the one and only player I ever flew out during my season to watch play. I remember going to the high school field and it was one of these typical Americana scenes, with this mascot jet in the end zone and all kinds of stuff like that. I remember seeing him collect the first cross and he threw the ball to midfield. And I’m looking at that, thinking he was pretty confident. It took me that one time, plus what Dean and Doug had said, that made me realize there was something special about him.”
Friedel helped UCLA win a national championship in 1990 and won the 1992 Hermann Trophy as the best U.S. collegiate soccer player. But being spotted by Wurzberger in a field in Virginia still remains clear in his mind.
“Actually, he came over last year with a group of coaches,” Friedel laughed. “I was speaking and they asked me about how it started, and I was like, ‘Actually, the guy who saw me is sitting in the room!’ We had spoken about it last year, I’m not sure if his flight was late or he missed it, but he came back to the fields and just happened to see me in a small tournament in Virginia.”
Asked how much he owed Wurzberger for that initial faith in his talent, Friedel was grateful and appreciative but admitted luck plays a huge part in the career of any soccer player, especially at the start.
“Listen, everybody’s career has some luck. Everybody. Doesn’t matter if you are Lionel Messi or somebody else, if you’ve had some success in any professional sport you need some luck along the way,” Friedel said. “You have to. That was one of my times of luck. Another time was redshirting my first year, as Sigi Schmid had seen enough of me and recommended me to Lothar Osiander who was coaching the U.S. Olympic team. That was another bout of luck. I ended up playing in the ’92 Olympics and that was where I was seen by Ronnie Fenton from Nottingham Forest and that set me on my way to England … That’s how it all transpires. I think every story in every sport will have an element of luck.”
Maybe Friedel is right about the luck aspect, but at the core of it all was the hard work he put in during his formative years spent at UCLA.
“He always trained really hard and was really committed to training. I remember one day at training…” Schmid laughs, “I was working with the attackers at one end and my goalkeeper coach was down at the other end of the field. All of a sudden Brad comes walking past me and I go, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘They can’t hit crosses well down there.’ And I said, ‘Tell them to hit better crosses.’ Then he says, ‘No, I’ve had enough.’ I told him to get back down there and take those crosses! Doing things well was always really important to him from the opening day.”
At the very beginning of it all, moving from Bay Village, Ohio to Los Angeles was important. However, his mother, Sue, had plenty of concerns about how her son would cope with moving across the country. Recalling Friedel’s recruitment process, former U.S. national team goalkeeper and UCLA’s goalkeeping coach at the time, Tim Harris, (now the Senior Vice President of Business Operations for the Los Angeles Lakers) revealed how hard he had to work to convince Friedel’s mother it was a good idea for her son to play for UCLA.
“He’s coming from relatively small town Ohio to Los Angeles and I recall his Mom was pretty concerned that her son was coming to LA, to a big school,” Harris said. “She was concerned what it was going to be like and how he would adjust. I remember spending a lot of time giving his Mom assurances that we would look after him.”
But Friedel was never likely to go off the rails. This was evident to Harris the first time he met him.
“The first time I met (Friedel) was when he came out for his recruiting trip to UCLA,” Harris continued. “He’s 17 at the time; even when he was 17 he had this emotional maturity. He’s always had this sense of calm, and that was what was most impressive about him at 17. It is impressive about him now. Even when he was 17, he had a beyond-his-years emotional maturity.”
Friedel redshirted for the Bruins during his freshman year as Anton Nistl finished out his stellar career. But that’s where the work began for Friedel, as Harris became his first full-time goalkeeping coach, even after he left his job at UCLA. Friedel revealed that Harris not only played a key part in helping his development as a player, but as a person.
“He was my goalkeeping coach at UCLA, when I went there,” Friedel said. “I had some great coaches in other sports in hockey (and) basketball but as far as soccer, (Harris) was my first proper goalkeeping coach. He took me under his wing. He helped mold me into the goalkeeper and person I am today. The first two years especially, I used to wake up at 5 a.m. and drive to Manhattan Beach from UCLA to train and then come back, go to class and then take a nap before training with the team. Lot of work back then,” said Friedel, smiling as he took a sip of coffee.
Harris has fond memories of those early morning workouts with Friedel too, and talked about how he was blown away by the teenager’s tremendous work ethic.
“At the time I had moved on to sports management but Brad still wanted to train. So I said, Brad that’s fine. I can’t get up to UCLA at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, but I can get out to Manhattan Beach at 7 a.m.,” Harris explained. “And I’m thinking when I threw it out there, he’s a pretty special kid … but there’s no way a college kid is going to drive from UCLA for a 7 a.m. workout on a regular basis. He didn’t have a car, he had to sort one out … So he’s getting up before 6 a.m. and driving down to Manhattan Beach for an hour-and-a-half session, then he’s back on the freeway in rush hour, back to UCLA. Shower. Go to class. Then he has to get in his UCLA soccer requirements of lifting and practicing with the team. Then he has to hit the books and then there’s a social life … The next morning the alarm goes off at 5:45 a.m. and he’s in the car again.”
Harris also revealed plenty of amusing anecdotes about Friedel’s commitment.
“He would take the tape, put it to his left side and dive. Then get up and put it to his right side. Back and forth. With a piece of tape. In a dark stadium. By himself.”
“One time he had borrowed somebody’s car and it had rained real hard the night before and whoever’s car it was, they left the sunroof open or something and the car had about two inches of water on the floorboards, at least,” Harris laughed. “And he drove it with the water sloshing all around, then we had our session and he gets back in the ‘water car’ to get back to UCLA. This is the stuff he did, a lot of people don’t know this.”
When he first turned up at UCLA, Friedel was a pure athlete who entertained the idea of going to college to play basketball or tennis. Harris revealed that UCLA’s basketball team invited Friedel to try and walk on. The Bruins were a Top 25 team that year, but getting better as a goalkeeper was the only thing on Friedel’s mind. Day and night.
“He was dating a girl when he was at UCLA and she told me this story,” Harris chuckled. “One evening she had wanted to go for a run at the track stadium. So Brad said, ‘I’ll come along,’ just to hang out, or probably just to walk because it was dark and there was no lights. So she is doing her running and she looks around, and she’s like, ‘Where’s Brad?’ After a while she sees him in the middle of the track stadium on the grass field, he had gathered together some loose athletic tape on the field and had crushed it into a little ball. He would take this ball of tape and he would set it off to one side of him and then he’d get into a position and he would dive and parry the piece of tape. And he would take the tape, put it to his left side and dive. Then get up and put it to his right side. Back and forth. With a piece of tape. In a dark stadium. By himself.”
That story about a piece of tape in the track stadium at UCLA at night tells you all you need to know about Friedel’s insatiable work ethic.
“That’s why he has been doing this so long. He’s a guy who will dive after a piece of tape when he’s 19 years old, while his girlfriend is running,” Harris said. “Nobody does that! In this day and age, nobody does that. Now it is crazy, the pendulum has swung so far that everyone needs proper training. Goalkeepers are going to say, ‘I’m not diving after tape. I need goals, balls, cones and a trainer.’ This is why he’s where he’s at.
“He dives at a piece of tape in the dark.”
FLYING THE U.S. FLAG IN EUROPE
After excelling in college and being involved with the U.S. Olympic team in 1992 and the ’94 World Cup squad, Friedel finally sealed his passage to Europe with Turkish giants Galatasaray after work permit issues scuppered his stints at Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest. He never played for either team, but believes that situation made him strong. He raves about his time spent in Istanbul.
“Looking back to Galatasaray, being a kid from Cleveland going to live in Istanbul, that was probably the best year-and-a-half of my life, learning wise, off the field. It was a great experience and I look back on it with fond memories,” says Friedel. “Those are some crazy, crazy supporters. The Galatasaray-Fenerbache rivalry, there is no other rivalry I’ve seen that lives up to that sort of intensity. I’ve been at the Old Firm ones as a supporter and obviously been involved in Liverpool-Everton, Aston Villa-Birmingham, Arsenal-Tottenham, they all have their edge to them. But the Galatasaray-Fenerbache, that’s at a different level. Being able to play through that, you can pretty much play through anything. I found the Turkish people very endearing and very warm. For myself I couldn’t have been happier, and you knew if someone was a Fenerbache supporter they weren’t going to be your friend. That was fine. Overall, the neutral fans and fans of Galatasary are unbelievable and I still stay in touch with quite a few of them today. Funny enough, I was just looking through some archive photos the other day with my family. We pulled out a few of Galatasaray and it brings back some really good memories.”
But what about the work permit issues in England? Surely that had to be tough for a 20-something American goalkeeper who kept getting knocked back at every hurdle?
“After the 1994 World Cup, then came the process of trying to find him a dang team,” Harris explained. “And he had all of these moves to teams like Nottingham Forest and elsewhere but since then Gordon Taylor, the head of the PFA, has spoken to Brad about how difficult they made it for him to get in and he ends up being one of their longest-ever professionals. He had all these problems … but he wasn’t going to be denied. He had worked so hard for this opportunity. Again it comes back to this emotional maturity because at that time he is 20, 21. Most kids would have packed it in and would have been too frustrated.”
“When we were going through that process,” Harris continued, “we were at somebody’s place on Manhattan Beach. It was right on the beach, we were all sitting outside enjoying the view. Brad is inside watching some U-19 U.S. Cup game on TV because he’d rather do that than sit outside in the sun. The guy was not going to be denied.”
After spending time in Istanbul and then playing for Brondby in Denmark, Friedel finally landed at the club he supported as a boy, Liverpool, making all of those paperwork issues worthwhile.
“The work permit issues … It was very discouraging. A very difficult time,” Friedel explains, looking down at his shoes, as he handles a coffee cup gently in his gigantic hands as if it was an egg. “You always wondered why top managers thought you were good enough but the department of education and employment had different rules. It was a very frustrating time but also when you look back at it, it makes you a little bit stronger. It is set up much better today as they have an appeals process. And the appeals panel now, there are actual football bodies on it so if you present your case very strongly then you have a good chance of getting enough help. I’ve helped many American players over the years get their work permits.”
If you look back through the history books, Friedel was part of an elite group of U.S. players who helped pave the way for Americans to head to England and the rest of Europe to make their way as professionals. The first wave of Americans to play overseas were the likes of Friedel, Kasey Keller, John Harkes and a few others who all arrived in soccer’s homeland with a point to prove: Americans can play. Friedel can rattle off a long list of American players who came over in the 90s to try and crack Europe and whether or not they succeed or failed. “Every time one of those guys came over and did a decent job it helped pave the way for American players.”
That said, gaining respect was not easy, as Friedel reflected on the role he, and others, had on helping the modern day Americans playing in Europe.
“It was tough going. It was really hard not just to get a work permit but tough for American players in general. Sitting here in an interview talking about it doesn’t do it justice. There were always guys coming over and trying to make it. Every single time a player came over, it helped. Whether they made it or not.” Friedel said. “Looking back on it, that is probably one of the proudest things in my career. I was one of those founding members, if you like, that helped pave the way for American players. Claudio Reyna did the same, Brian McBride did the same a couple of years later. But they had very good careers here in Europe. Alexi [Lalas] was probably the biggest name at the time and he went into Serie A when it was the biggest league in Europe. That was big news. Then he chose to go back to MLS, which helped the notoriety of MLS at the time. Everyone had a hand in it, but looking back on everything it is probably one of the proudest things about being involved for the U.S. Coming from Bay Village, Ohio, to then having the ability to help out, if you like. If you take the performances of Kasey [Keller] and performances of myself, of Juergen Sommer, we would have paved the way for Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and a kid like (Southampton’s American goalkeeper) Cody Cropper, if you like. And it goes on and on.”
“If you look at strikers,” Friedel continued, “there will be strikers out there (and) coaches will say, ‘He’s very much like Brian McBride.’ And they will go into the visa process and say this is what they need and they will be able to relate to American players. Whereas before there was no American player to relate to at all. It was, ‘Yeah, this kid is playing amateur soccer in California or he is at the University of Virginia’… It was all of us back then, we all helped pave the way for guys who are playing now.”
U.S. national team players like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore have a lot to thank Friedel and his band of American pioneers who stuck it out in the 90’s to build a good name for American soccer players in Europe.
When it comes to Howard, damning accusations were present in his book which was released recently about Friedel trying to block his move to Manchester United back in 2004. Friedel vehemently denied the claims and to clear all of this up once and for all, Howard has since released a statement that says his version was incorrect and harmful words written against Friedel in his book will be extracted.
GOLDEN GOALKEEPING GENERATION
In all, Friedel made 82 appearances for the U.S. national team. He went to the 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cups. For most of his time with the Stars and Stripes, Friedel was embroiled in a battle with two other ‘keepers for the starting spot. Kasey Keller and Tony Meola.
Both of them earned 100-plus caps for the USMNT, but when speaking to Meola, he revealed perhaps Friedel’s greatest strength and one of the main reasons why he has flourished in England for over two decades as a professional.
“Brad has always been a pure shot-stopper,” Meola said. “I’ve said that for years. It was always myself, Kasey and Brad and if it was just about pure shot-stopping from the top of the 18, that wasn’t a competition I was going to win. (Friedel) was much better at that than I was. For lack of a better term, he’s a very English style goalkeeper. Big guy, rangy, good shot-stopper. No frills in the back, he isn’t a guy who was going to take chances and flick the ball over someone’s head. Very straightforward. It is no surprise that he was attractive to English teams.”
Friedel retired from the U.S. national team in February 2005 at the age of 33. Now, at the age of 43, he’s still playing in the PL but has no regrets about calling it quits with the USMNT when he did.
“After the 2002 World Cup I took a year off basically, and then I only played one more game after that. I went in away at Poland. I think it was me and Marcus Hahnemann … Do I wish I would have kept going? No,” Friedel says bluntly. “My decisions that I’ve made in my career were made for the right reasons. When the teams were rolling out for the World Cup finals, you get a bit of an itch. But then you quickly go back and say, ‘Yeah, but I would have been doing the qualifying and the trips back and forth.’ The World Cup is not just the World Cup, it is the four years leading up to it. I had some great times with the national team, and the players there. And some interesting times with a couple of the staffs that were there and some learning experiences that were remarkable. When all is said and done, I’m not giving to live on woulda, coulda, shouldas.”
Friedel is remembered fondly for becoming the first ‘keeper since 1974 to save two separate penalty kicks at a World Cup finals tournament during the USA’s run to the quarterfinals in 2002. Leading up to that tournament in Japan and South Korea, competition between Friedel and Keller for the number one jersey was intense. In a pre-tournament camp in North Carolina things boiled over between two of the greatest American goalkeepers to play the game, briefly.
“I joke about this story with Bruce Arena, but I was probably the guy who was brought in [as third choice] because I was the most capable of separating those two if anything were to happen,” Meola laughed. “It boiled over one time in North Carolina in the camp. Those two got up in each other’s personal space, I guess. It took myself and George Gelnovatch [head coach at UVA] to separate them. I don’t recall how it all started but it was quick, over and then back to peace and harmony. But I think Bruce Arena was happy I was part of that group at that particular moment!”
Just like any competitor at the top of his sport, Friedel wanted to play and wanted to win, at all costs. He loved rising to the occasion to perform. Reflecting on which stadium was his favorite to play in throughout his career, Friedel answered without a second of hesitation.
“I loved playing at the Azteca Stadium. What a place,” said Friedel, with a beaming smile on his face when recalling the home of Mexico’s national team. “The atmosphere, the hatred towards Americans, 120,000 people … What a place to play.”
Friedel proved himself to be worthy of leading the U.S. into such hostile settings. When polling experts about where Friedel ranks all-time among U.S. Soccer greats, the consensus is that he’s right up there.
“In terms of goalkeepers he’s in the elite of the U.S. goalkeepers,” Schmid said. “The U.S. is very blessed that they had a really good run of goalkeepers there with Keller, Meola and Friedel. Each one has his strengths. For me Brad was always the guy who had more of the complete package. So I think he’s right there as one of the top goalkeepers ever. In terms of playing-wise as well. The interesting part is that those three ‘keepers all had a ton of caps and played in the same era. If there would have only been one strong goalkeeper in that group, that guy would have had 200 caps. Brad, in terms of U.S. soccer players, is in the elite and is in the top 10 of U.S. players all-time.”
Naturally, that respect for Friedel’s achievements extend beyond the USA, as he is extremely highly regarded in England as well.
In fact, there’s something that I personally remember from the start of the 2013-14 Premier League season that really speaks to Friedel’s character. Wandering around in the depths of Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park stadium following the opening game of the season, Tottenham had just won 1-0, and I came across Friedel with new signing Etienne Capoue in the tunnel. Friedel was on his cell phone, arranging things for Spurs’ new signing from France and making him feel at home right away. Which is the kind of guy Friedel is. Always around to help, and someone the younger guys look up to.
And then recently, when meeting Friedel one afternoon in Spurs’ immaculate new training facility in the suburbs of north London, Tottenham’s manager Mauricio Pochettino walked past and whistled at us as we were chatting away on the sofa. Friedel gave Pochettino the thumbs up and a wink. Moments later, a random member of the office staff walked past and Friedel gave her a warm welcome. It went on and on. From first team manager to a club staffer, the respect shown by everyone at Spurs towards Friedel was immense. During his long career, the way he’s conducted himself and performed has earned him respect in the country which soccer calls home.
DEFYING LOGIC, RECORDS, LONGEVITY
That accumulated respect is down to Friedel’s legacy of being reliable and hard-working. And, for a number of years, being Mr. Consistent. If you speak to anyone about Friedel’s career, especially in England, the first words that come out of their mouths are either “machine,” “beast” or “superhuman.” All of those are true.
In 2012 Friedel set the record for the most consecutive performances by a Premier League player with 310 games, after playing in every match from the start of the 2004 season until the start of 2012. He did not miss a PL game for eight whole seasons, as he kept his ageing body supple with yoga and whatever else he could do to prolong his career. Freidel now holds many records in English soccer. He is the oldest player to play for both Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur throughout their illustrious histories, and if he plays for Spurs before the end of the current PL season he will break John Burridge’s record as the league’s oldest ever player at the age of 43 years and 162 days.
Sit back and think about all that. For a player to be able to go without injury for eight years, in the modern era. That’s unheard of.
Friedel’s longevity is the first thing that pops into people’s minds, and rightly so, because to still have a Premier League contract at the age of 43 is quite remarkable. But the people who know him best aren’t surprised that his incredible career is still going on.
“Speaking to Brad over the years, early on it was also apparent that he wanted to make his career in Europe, and in particular in England, and he has been able to do that and done very well with that,” recalls Meola. “It is no surprise that he is still playing now because he was always very, very fit. For a goalkeeper, he was always at the front of the line for running. He was a runner… those things generally don’t come easy for goalkeepers! It was apparent early on that he would have a long career and a very successful one.”
Sigi Schmid wasn’t surprised Friedel’s career has lasted as long as it has.
“He was a guy that I felt had the abilities to go and play in Europe and the fact the he lasted as long as he did is always a little bit of a surprise, but it also isn’t because of how dedicated he is,” Schmid said. “I know yoga became a big part of his routine towards the end and he has just always been a good trainer and very dedicated. He’s a big guy, so a lot of time getting down low and stopping shots going in close to his body was difficult. If he took a goal that way, he wanted to work on that. He really improved in that area and was just really committed in everything he did.”
Back in 2008 Stoke City’s current manager Mark Hughes, who played with and then coached Friedel at Blackburn Rovers, spoke about the American’s reliability and his incredible longevity.
“Brad stands comparison to any of the keepers that I was fortunate to play with, such as Peter Schmeichel and Neville Southall,” Hughes said. “He’s right in the top bracket. The continuity and consistency that he’s been able to display is a credit to him and how he goes about his every-day work. Brad’s one of the best professionals that I’ve come across as a player, and certainly as a manager. He’s at the top of the tree because he works extremely hard to stay there. He embraces new things and new thinking, such as yoga, and anything that could give him an advantage to prolong his career. I think Brad embraces things more readily than the other guys to push down a certain route. He’s young in his mind and also surrounded by young guys.”
After signing with Aston Villa at the age of 37, Friedel was lauded by his manager Martin O’Neill for several superb displays which helped the Villains finish in the top six during his time at the club.
“He was really class. He’s come up big for us,” O’Neill said after Villa beat West Ham back in 2008. “I was comparing that to Peter Schmeichel being sensational for Manchester United and I played with two unbelievable keepers — Pat Jennings and Peter Shilton. Friedel has not played all those games for Blackburn and us not to be considered as good as anyone else. He was outstanding and it would have been something special to have beaten him.”
When he arrived at Tottenham in 2011, Friedel even got Spurs boss Harry Redknapp to do a bit of yoga and the other players followed suit. Redknapp didn’t take to it, but Friedel’s unique routines have become commonplace in his success in the Premier League for over two decades.
In fact, when he looks back at his entire club career, the only place he didn’t shine was at Liverpool. For whatever reason, it just didn’t work out for Friedel at the club he grew up supporting in Ohio.
“The funny thing is that I grew up a Liverpool supporter in the States and the worst that I played in my career was probably my first 10 months that I was at Liverpool,” Friedel said, shaking his head but with a wry smile on his face. “I just had a real tough time finding my feet. I played some good games and some bad games. But looking back on my career, one of my strengths as a goalkeeper has always been consistency. And at Liverpool I was anything but consistent during that first 10-12 months. I know there was a lot of change going on at the club with Roy Evans as the manager and then Gerrard [Houllier] and Roy as co-managers. Maybe looking back on it, because I was younger and from a goalkeeping standpoint I wasn’t strong enough to be more of an individual in all these changing circumstances that were going on and I just got caught up in it. With the inconsistency of the club came the inconsistency of me. Who knows?”
“But going to the club you support, and then the latter games I played for the club were quite good but I had to move on. I was desperate to go play but I was gutted I was leaving Liverpool,” Friedel continued. “But you have to make a professional decision and the best for your career and I needed to go play football. They had bought Sander Westerveld and he was playing. So I had to go.”
PASSION FOR MLS
Throughout his career many rumors circulated that Friedel would go home and play in MLS. That never panned out, for various reasons, but Friedel still spends plenty of time watching North America’s domestic league grow and flourish from across the pond and is delighted to see what it has become.
“Looking back there was no real substantive professional league, no MLS,” Friedel said of his late teens. “The MLS today compared to 1996, it is just night and day. There are better opportunities now. We didn’t have that. It was, go to college, play semi-pro and get a job.”
“Now, as a young American player, you don’t have to come to Europe to have a career anymore. When I was growing up you did,” he continued. “If you wanted a top career you had to come to Europe. That was a fact. Foreign players that were going back to MLS were on their last legs. It was a retirement league. Some of the players may still say that now, but it has evolved.”
Asked if he has seen the perception towards MLS change in recent years, Friedel was extremely positive.
“Yep. But the reality of the league has changed as well” he explains enthusiastically. “It is not a simple league to go back to anymore. If you have lost your legs, you will get found out. Guys like a Robbie Keane, that’s why he prospers over there because he still has his legs and is such a clever player that he will be able to deal with it well. Frank Lampard and David Villa, you will see that when they come over there. They both have a lot of legs left in them and will do very well as foreign players. That will in turn help the U.S. players. If you are a U.S. player now and you are in the Olympic or national team and you are 19, 20 (then maybe you’ll) have the opportunity to go to a second division team in Holland (where) you may or you may not play. Or you have the chance to stay and play in MLS, it is better to stay in MLS.”
According to Harris, Friedel’s plan was to return to MLS at the age of 35 and see out his playing days in his homeland. But that just never materialized.
“We used to say, ‘Let’s get to 35 and then come back to the MLS for a couple of years and then that will be that’” Harris revealed. “We used to visualize a scenario where he would get to 35, come back to MLS and we will somehow engineer it where I can come and be the goalkeeping coach and that’s how we will finish. To finish sort of how we started. But somewhere along the way the masterplan didn’t work and he kept staying and staying. That final MLS thing is never going to happen. But never say never… not with him!”
After playing alongside MLS’ leading goal-scorer Landon Donovan for the U.S. national team, I asked Friedel about his thoughts on Donovan’ legacy and the fact that he played the vast-majority of his career in MLS rather than gutting it out overseas.
“My take on all this is that, if your mindset is not right then you are not going to play well. Wherever you go. In Landon’s case, I think he made the most of his career doing what he did. He came over on a couple of loan spells and did really well. But he knew in the back of his mind that he was going back and that’s where his mind was happy,” says Freidel. “He had an incredible career with the national team and his legacy will be there forever within the MLS.
“I don’t think it is down for you or I to say what was right or wrong,” continues Friedel. “I think everyone knows that if you are a player and you have the opportunity to go and play with Real Madrid and you are going to play all the time and you are happy doing it, then that would be the ultimate and you would be one of the world icons of the game. But if you have the opportunity to play somewhere and you’re not happy doing it, and you don’t know if it’s right and you want to be somewhere else, then you shouldn’t be at that place. That is a fact … That is a fact. It is going to affect the way you play. It is going to affect the way you act. It is going to affect the way you feel and you shouldn’t be there. It is not for somebody else to decide where (Donovan) plays. Looking back on his career, do I think he chose to play in the right place? Yeah. He played really well for them and set records everywhere.”
Speaking with Friedel about MLS, it is clear his passion for the league remains and he recalls his one season in the league with Columbus Crew in 1996-97 with great pride. We discussed at length the difficulties in having an August-May schedule in MLS, the likes of DeAndre Yedlin heading to Tottenham from Seattle and Friedel was insistent that there was one area in which MLS needs to improve: coaching at the youth level.
Asked if he would like to play a part in helping develop young players in North America, Friedel was coy. But given his coaching badges and work with Spurs’ youngsters in recent years, it seems like an area close to his heart.
“In soccer, I think you never say never with a scenario,” Friedel explained. “The reason that I know a lot about youth development is that during the last three-and-a-half-years of it, I have been coaching here with the academy. The youth development side of things is something that is in my mind but I also think that because I’ve been in the game for so long, I understand the psyche of a senior professional as well. Where I see myself fit in is quite a big spectrum.”
At this point, Friedel has made his decision to move into the media realm, as the door is creeping shut on his playing days. He knows it, and the decision about his next move has arrived. Yet he is at ease with the future and doesn’t seem scared or afraid of leaving his playing days behind and moving on to the next chapter in his life. That’s probably because Friedel has put himself in a phenomenal position to move into whichever aspect of the game he so chooses.
For a long time he’s had an active role in the media, with the likes of FOX in the USA and BBC Sport and Setanta in Europe. Friedel’s relaxed demeanor sits well with the audience and his vast experience as a player enables him to instantly gain respect from whoever is watching. A career in media now beckons after his playing days are over.
“As far as the television, I was asked many moons ago to go on Match of the Day and Sky. It is just something that is enjoyable to me,” Friedel says. “I think I have always tried to be accountable for what I say and I mean what I say. So if somebody wants to come back and wants an answer (from) me, I try not to say things flippantly. I try to see it with an education behind it, but I do enjoy it. Almost all of my work is studio, analytical, being a pundit. I was at the World Cup with the BBC doing things from talk shows to (co-commentaries) to Match of the Day. I enjoy the studio work far more than the other stuff. I like the camaraderie, the family feel to it. You are usually in with some fellow or ex-pros that you haven’t seen for a long time. I do enjoy it.”
Alongside his media work, Friedel has also been working hard to get his coaching badges in England. He has the UEFA A license and is currently completing his UEFA Pro license, the highest badge you can get. Along with working with the youth teams at Tottenham over the past years during his coaching education, Friedel has taken a lot of time to think about his next step.
Friedel’s coaching badges have helped him become ‘a sponge’ in his own words. It doesn’t matter that he’s been playing professionally for over two decades, he still wants to learn and grab whatever he can from the game that has given him so much too, and vice-versa.
“You ask me why and what is the end product [of getting his UEFA Pro license],” Friedel said, thoughtfully. “In any of the jobs I go into, it helps. It doesn’t matter whether you are a part owner of a club, or a coach or in the media. Every course you take and person you meet who keeps you current with the latest things people are doing, you are always trying to get that extra edge to make yourself the best that you can be in whatever it is you do.”
Just like the kid messing around with the piece of tape at UCLA, Friedel is doing everything he can to be the best.
“The coaching qualifications, it is not about having a piece of paper. It is about actually going in and doing the work,” explains Friedel. “(It’s taken) many, many years to (get to) the point I am at. Okay, I’ve done it a little bit pedantically as I am still a player, but I have read every book that I can, met with every person that I can. I have tried to attend every match that I can. I try to watch (everything) from the U-9’s to the developmental side, as much as I can. I am just trying to be a sponge and absorb everything. I am not pro-English in the way that they play. I have been all over Europe and watched the different academies play. I have spoken to many people in Germany, Holland and Spain, gathered as much data as I possibly can.”
What about the man who first spotted Friedel in that field in Virginia back in the 1980’s? What does he think of Friedel’s career and his next move?
“I saw him play and develop over his collegiate career into one the top goalkeepers this country has ever produced. And that was all from the result of a simple opportunity and what he decided to make of it,” Wurzberger says. “Brad has to be considered in the top three ‘keepers the USA ever produced. He has had success at every level of play and I think he will also have a successful career as a manager or a coach if he chooses to do that. He has a lovely demeanor and is such a humble character. “
Schmid recalled a story about Friedel’s arm span being such that he could touch the goalpost while standing as a teenager. But other than this, nothing seems to surprise the Sounders coach when it comes to the Spurs ‘keeper, and that includes his future.
“Every time you did something with him, you’d find out another skill that he had,” Schmid said. “For me the number one thing that I will always remember with Brad is just his dedication to working and working on something when he thought he gave up a bad goal. I mean, he was just relentless on trying to train on that. That is what sets great players apart.”
‘THERE WON’T BE A BREAK’
When you are around Friedel, you can’t help but be relaxed.
When we spoke I found myself lounging back, arm up on the sofa, and the minutes ticked by as we spoke about his career (believe me, that takes a while) and the soccer world in general. His calm demeanor means he is a likable character, and he’s made so many friends on and off the field over the years that you know his next step in soccer will be every bit as successful as his career as a pro.
Harris, for one, doesn’t expect Friedel to waste any time in moving on from playing.
“His stone doesn’t gather a lot of moss,” Harris explains. “When he finally is done, there’s not going to be a lot of down time. He doesn’t deal well with down time. When it is done, he will be moving along. There won’t be a break. He’s going to move on to his next gig. His ego isn’t so much that he is not unwilling to not be the smartest guy in the room. Meaning, his ego is such that he allows himself to be the dumbest guy in the room so that allows him to learn. And then grow. That takes a lot of maturity to do that and to have the emotional equity built up inside you to say, ‘I’m okay being the dumb guy in the room.’”
Meola, meanwhile, believes Friedel has a lot to give to the next generation of American players.
“I would think somewhere along the (way) we will see him in a camp with at least the youth national team,” Meola said. “He is a resource for U.S. Soccer and U.S. soccer players and it would be crazy not to use that resource and let it go to the waste.”
“He seems to have a passion to give back to the game. And I am sure he will have a positive impact with this endeavor. He will continue to impact the game in a positive manner.”
And Harris is adamant that whatever Friedel moves on to, he will make a success of it.
“He will dive after the ball of tape, he will do whatever he has to do to achieve what he has to achieve. Whether he is diving after a ball of tape in the dark or driving in a flooded automobile for a 7 a.m. workout or going all over Europe to do a training course. He does what has to be done.”
As for his future in the game, Friedel will move into media, but he will also keep working on coaching and continue to be involved in various projects. His options are endless. But one thing remains: Does Friedel miss the USA?
“Sometimes,” Friedel admits. “My Dad is quite ill, so not being able to be back as much for him, these last five years he has been healthy on and off. Those times you wish you were back, those times are testing. As far as life, my kids were all born over here. This is all they know. I suppose if they were a little older and they were born in America and then we came over here, there would be more of an itch to get back. In the summers when we go back, we are always talking with each other saying, ‘Should we stay?’” laughs Friedel. “Because there are some amenities over there that are not available over here but there are also some areas of England that are wonderful that aren’t on offer in the States. The big exception is the sun, the weather. But I must say the weather is much better in London. I spent many years up North … Wow, it was cold up there!”
Reflecting on his incredibly long career, Friedel revealed that he and his wife sometimes sit back and are amazed at how it has all panned out.
“You just can’t believe … I firmly believed at 35 I would be done and dusted and back home,” Friedel says. “Then you get the contract offer and you feel good, so you’re like, ‘Eh, let’s do it!’ Then at 37, two clubs, both progressive clubs, put in offers for you, and with Blackburn at the time I knew I was going to leave. Again I wasn’t desperate to leave, but I knew they weren’t going forward. Listen, it just happened that at 40 I got another two-year offer and that’s just how it goes.”
Now, as Friedel is expected to call time on his playing days in May, it seems as though it is finally time for one of the greatest soccer players the USA has ever seen to return home.
“I’ve been doing quite a bit of media work and I always knew I would still be involved in soccer,” says Friedel. “I am still going to finish my UEFA Pro license as I feel that will help with my analytical and punditry side. Soccer is in my blood and I will be involved in it in many capacities for the remainder of my working life. With the way soccer has grown in MLS and the notoriety of the national team, I think it is a great time to come back.”
From starting up at 17 at UCLA to being 43 and playing at Tottenham Hotspur, what a journey it has been for Friedel and those who have watched him and played a part along the way. Now, it’s on to the next step, as his next journey in the soccer realm is just beginning. Could it turn out to be even more fruitful than his playing days? If it is anywhere near as successful as what he’s managed in England, then Friedel will play a hugely important role for soccer in the U.S. for decades to come.