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I AM IRON MAN
GRANT WAHL
April 23, 2012
He's spent 15 years at the top of the game and is set to play in his record 300th straight Premier League match. Yes, Brad Friedel is the Cal Ripken of English football, and he's 100% American—except for that accent
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April 23, 2012

I Am Iron Man

He's spent 15 years at the top of the game and is set to play in his record 300th straight Premier League match. Yes, Brad Friedel is the Cal Ripken of English football, and he's 100% American—except for that accent

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Redknapp considers Friedel's goalkeeping performance this season among the best in the league: Through Sunday he was fourth, with 12 clean sheets. "And since the Premier League started [in 1992], he'd be up there with the best of them, the [Edwin] van der Sars and [Peter] Schmeichels, certainly in the top 10," says Redknapp. "He's unflappable. The back four feel confident with him there, and he's probably only made one mistake since he's been here."

"Brad has that calming influence on you," says Spurs midfielder Scott Parker. "You see some keepers flying around the goal, and it might be pleasing to the eye, but with Brad everything is always in control."

As the longest serving American in Europe, Friedel is uniquely positioned as an observer of the game both abroad and in the States. He sees the millions of dollars going into U.S. youth development and wonders why a population of 300 million can't produce more genuine European soccer stars. "We should be able to count on more than two hands the U.S. players who've had strong established careers in the top leagues," he says. As for the changes in the Premiership since his arrival in 1997, he says, "The pace of the game increases every year because the athletes get better, but the physicality of the game decreases every year." Referees now whistle more dangerous tackles, he argues, and give yellow and red cards for plays that wouldn't have even been deemed fouls 15 years ago.

Friedel is convinced that a top keeper in the lower half of the Premier League can make a difference of 13 to 15 points in the standings over the course of a season—Blackburn finished in the top 10 in each of Friedel's final three years with the club; the season after he left for Aston Villa, Rovers dropped to 15th—while one in the upper half can provide a nine- to 12-point swing. That explains why Spurs signed Friedel last summer on a free transfer. Despite reaching the Champions League quarterfinals in 2011, Tottenham finished a disappointing fifth in the Premier League due partly to the inconsistency of goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes. If Spurs can maintain their top four position, they'll earn a berth in the Champions League next season, and Friedel, at age 41, would make his debut in the world's most prestigious club tournament.

On an off day in Theydon Bois, the village northeast of London that Friedel calls home, one of the world's top goalkeepers turns into Mr. Mom. While his wife, Tracy, tends to her business, a children's clothing store called Izzy & Al, Brad makes school runs and handles other household tasks involving daughters Izabella, 8, and Allegra, 5, and 11-month-old son Rayf. It's all very domestic. You'd be surprised how much time athletes have at home when, in a place as small as England, they spend so few days on the road. "In my daily life I'm a father, not a Premier League goalkeeper," says Friedel. "It's exciting when you have three kids, so you live vicariously through them."

When he does stop playing, Friedel can look back with pride at a groundbreaking career, the highlights of which include a standout performance at Japan/Korea 2002, when he became the only keeper ever to save two penalty kicks in a single World Cup. Friedel retired from the national team in '05 to focus on his club career, but his continued Premier League excellence made at least one U.S. coach wonder if he'd consider playing for the Yanks again. He says Bob Bradley asked him what he'd do if he called Friedel up before the '10 World Cup. "I didn't think it would be fair to the guys who went through qualifying," Friedel says. "I told him, 'If you pick the three goalkeepers and all of them get injured or sick, then call me.' That would be fair."

On the club side, though, he keeps going—Friedel's contract with Spurs runs through 2012--13, and then he'll reevaluate. Why quit if you're still thriving at the highest level? "Most of my friends in the game are retired," says Friedel. "And every one of them tells me the same thing: Carry on until you can't anymore. Because nothing replaces playing."

THE FRIEDEL FILE

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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