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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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1990--92 UCLA 61
1992--2004 U.S. NATIONAL TEAM 82
1996--97 COLUMBUS CREW 45
1997--2000 LIVERPOOL 31
2000--08 BLACKBURN 357
2008--11 ASTON VILLA 131

It's hopeless. Gone. A sure goal. But Brad Friedel sees the shot. Planted on his line, Tottenham Hotspur's U.S. goalkeeper jab-steps once to his right, then springs violently left. The 25-yard blast by Swansea's Gylfi Sigurdsson is curving away from Friedel toward the top corner. On a big Premier League match day, in a race where every point counts, Swansea is about to draw level at 1--1. But Friedel sees the shot. His left arm fully extended, his flying form almost parallel to the turf, Friedel looks like a man who has suddenly decided to hail a cab going 80 miles an hour four lanes away. His left hand slaps the ball, which caroms off the goalpost and over the end line.

The English media will hail Friedel's play as the save of the week—Spurs go on to a 3--1 win—and one of the best of the season. Yet even more remarkable than the save itself is that it was pulled off by such an, um ... experienced ...

"You can say it," Friedel interrupts with a laugh. "An old bastard!"

How old is Brad Friedel? Old enough to have competed in the 1992 Olympics. Old enough to have turned pro before U.S. star Juan Agudelo was born. Old enough to have tried out in England before the formation of the Premier League. Old enough to have represented the U.S. in three World Cups and to have retired from the national team seven years ago.

And old enough to have played in 299 straight games in England's Premier League, more than any other player in league history. While Spurs, who are in fourth place in the Premiership with five matches remaining, jockey for a Champions League spot for next season, the 40-year-old Friedel has turned into soccer's version, in looks and actions, of Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies.

"When you get older, there are things you see quicker and certainly things you see but know you probably can't get there [in time]," says Friedel, who long has been known for his shot-stopping, distribution and defensive organization. "The through-ball: Am I going to beat Wayne Rooney to the ball over a 30-yard sprint? Probably not. But you can read those situations so much quicker and realize, My defender can get there. If I was 24, I could probably sprint out and take care of it. But now it has to do with my trust in the outfield players—and a lot of talking."

Often goalkeepers rail at their own back line, whether to shift the blame for a goal or to vent frustration. "You have to be careful," Friedel says. "It's easy for an outfield player to switch off with you and say, 'Shut your frickin' mouth! You're not running around for 90 minutes!' You have to keep those players onside." It may help Friedel's rapport with his defenders that after 15 years in England the northern Ohio native sounds more like a Brit than an American. Not that he's conscious of it. "I have never tried to have any accent, ever," says Friedel, whose lilt is a source of bemusement even among his own family. "When I go back to Ohio and I'm there three or four weeks, my family says it switches back to American. But the people here think I sound American. So I can't really win."

THOUGH HE'S a Premier League fixture, it took ages for Friedel just to get his chance in England. After winning an NCAA title and the Hermann Trophy at UCLA, he left for England in 1992 but was denied a work permit—the employment rules at the time, meant to protect domestic players, were notoriously tough. With no U.S. league in place, Friedel signed a contract with the national team, backing up Tony Meola at the '94 World Cup, then made stops in Denmark, Turkey and MLS. Finally in '97 he landed with English giant Liverpool, the team he'd supported since he was nine, when his father had taken him to see the Reds play West Ham at Wembley Stadium while on a family vacation.

But Friedel struggled for playing time at Anfield and left in November 2000 for Blackburn Rovers, then in the next lower division. There he stuck, immediately winning the job as Blackburn's No. 1 and helping Rovers earn promotion to the Premier League. On Aug. 14, 2004, he donned the gloves in Blackburn's 1--1 season-opening draw with West Brom. He has not missed a Premier League match since.

For years Friedel's goal was to play with a top European team until he was 34 or 35, then return to the States for a swan song in MLS. But the longer he excelled, the more his expectations shifted. Friedel attributes his iron-man streak to the usual suspects—eating and sleeping right, not overtraining, drinking in moderation—but says the key has been yoga. After tearing his right quadriceps at the end of the 2003--04 season (the cause of his last missed games), Friedel took up the practice on the suggestion of former teammate Barry Venison. "When you get older, it's easier to get tightness in your groin and quads and hips," he says. "If you can keep those parts strong and flexible, it helps your knees." Friedel does his downward-facing dog twice a day year-round and has recruited Spurs teammates and staff to a weekly session with his longtime instructor. "We never did yoga when I played," marvels Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp. "We didn't even used to stretch before training!" For Friedel the results are plain to see. One month before he turns 41, and at 6'3" and 202 pounds, he can nearly do splits.

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