If ever you have any spare time, fire up your internet search engine to look for a list of the greatest goalkeepers to have ever played in the Premier League – in every list you come across, you will find Brad Friedel’s name there. The Ohio-born shot-stopper enjoyed a truly astonishing career at the business end of English football but is perhaps overlooked as the actual greatest owing to his quiet personality off the field.
Away from the game, Friedel lived a life that was centered on being a present family man. Needless to say, the Premier League has its fair share of players who tend to flaunt an extravagant lifestyle on social media, which often sees their stock rise. Conversely, having grown up in the relatively small and humble city of Lakewood Ohio, with a population of a fraction over 50,000 people, it was never in Friedel’s interest to portray a flashy image.
In fact, it was this grounding and upbringing of modest beginnings that installed in Friedel a work ethic that would see him retire at the astonishing age of 44, while still on the books of the Champions League playing Tottenham Hotspur. Perhaps what is even more remarkable still is that Spurs’ manager at the time, Mauricio Pochettino, was prepared to hand Friedel a new contract, albeit to serve as the club’s third-choice keeper, even though he was six years away from turning 50.
Unconvinced that this would make him happy and after a career that had spanned over two and a half decades, Friedel decided to hang up his gloves and finally called it a day. This, however, is the story of the end of Friedel’s long and distinguished career, which has had him esteemed as one of the most talented keepers to have ever stepped foot on a soccer pitch in England.
At the beginning
It was at the University of California where Friedel made a name for himself as a goalkeeper after recording 66 appearances for the men’s soccer team. In fact, Friedel was so prolific in goal for UCLA that the revered publication, Soccer America, named the keeper to their College Team of the Century.
Unsurprisingly, after making such waves at the college level, Friedel confidently set out in search of a professional career and soon had multiple trial offers across the pond in the United Kingdom. However, even after impressing at the likes of Celtic and Nottingham Forest, Friedel was unable to earn a work permit, which meant that the search for a professional contract would go on.
In effect, it would only be during the 1996/1997 season that Friedel earned his first professional deal when he signed a three-year contract with the Columbus Crew in Ohio.
The boy wonder returns to Ohio
Yes, Friedel had returned to his hometown state but instead of mourning his bad luck, in terms of not acquiring a work permit, Friedel illustrated his back-breaking work ethic by putting his head down and getting on with the job. It was an attitude that would pay life-changing dividends as 12 months later, Friedel was named the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year after a remarkable debut season for the Crew in which he racked up 12 clean sheets and only conceded 42 goals in 38 games.
Incredibly, it was such a jaw-dropping effort from Friedel in goal for the Crew that it did, in many ways, convince a state whose attention was elsewhere, to take soccer seriously. Put differently, there was an understanding and sincere appreciation all over the Buckeye State that they had a world-class operator in Friedel playing for their MLS team. In many respects, it was the start of Ohio’s love for soccer which today, is as strong as ever.
In fact, only American Football and baseball are more popular than soccer in Ohio and this phenomenon can be observed by way of two telling features, the first is the fact that now you can legally bet on sports in Ohio. Indeed, the betting numbers from bookmakers such as FanDuel and DraftKings show that soccer is one of the most popular sports to wager on in Buckeye State. Nowadays, many bettors are backing Columbus Crew to win the 2023 MLS Cup at generous odds of +4000. The second indication of soccer’s increasing popularity in the state is that there are over 91,000 registered junior players, which truth be told, is nothing short of a revolution taking place at a grassroots level.
Ultimately, this proves that 26 years on from his debut season with the Crew, Friedel can boast of leaving a legacy that is still alive in Ohio.
To England and beyond…
Given the goalkeeper’s superhuman efforts between the sticks for the Crew in 1997, it won’t come as a surprise to learn that Liverpool was desperate to sign him which they successfully did for a fee close to two million dollars. Finally, Friedel was awarded a work permit in the United Kingdom, and from there, the American never looked back, even if his time at Anfield ended after just three years.
Following stiff competition from England international David James, Friedel decided to move on at the start of the new millennium when he put pen to paper on a deal with Blackburn Rovers. Friedel would spend eight successful years at Ewood Park during a spell where he would win multiple Man of the Match awards as well as be voted Blackburn’s Player of the Year during the 2002/2003 season. The giant shot-stopper undoubtedly found a home in northwest Lancashire, as well as an adoring fanbase. However, in 2008, it was time for a new challenge after signing for Aston Villa. Notably, Friedel was inducted into Blackburn’s Hall of Fame at the beginning of 2019.
Upon arriving at Villa Park, Friedel had been quietly racking up an impressive array of stats in terms of starts in consecutive games in the Premier League. Astonishingly, by the time the 2008/2009 season got to the halfway mark, the keeper would break the record for starting in continuous fixtures after notching up his 167th consecutive appearance during a 0-0 stalemate against Fulham.
Friedel sets an unbreakable record
When the summer of 2011 arrived, Friedel decided to let his contract with Villa come to a natural end before signing for Spurs as a free agent. Again, Friedel’s time at White Hart Lane would prove to be an immense success but all the while he was in goal for the Lilywhites, the American kept adding to this quite staggering record of continuous starts in the league.
Eventually, this phenomenal streak was broken in October 2012 when Spurs’ now captain, Hugo Lloris, was selected ahead of Friedel. At this stage, however, Friedel had racked up 310 consecutive starts in the English Premier League, the world’s most competitive domestic soccer tournament. You may need to take a few minutes for that stat to properly sink in given that it is a record that will, in all likelihood, never be broken.
When Friedel did eventually retire in 2015, he did so, as briefly touched on earlier, at the age of 44, and with 132 Premier League clean sheets to his name. This leaves the American tied for eighth on the all-time list of shutouts in the English top flight.
What does the record tell us about Friedel’s career?
Many may point to the fact that Friedel’s time in England returned very little in the way of silverware but that would be a misguided take on a career that gave so much back to the beautiful game. Yes, instead of a host of winners’ medals, Friedel inspired the next generation to play the game by leading by example and being ever-present when his team needed him. There were no excuses or lack of desire, Friedel shone through his unwavering commitment and was the most reliable professional footballer to have ever set foot in England.