Aston Villa’s American connections stretch from the boardroom, where New York-born Randy Lerner is the club’s owner, to the field, where U.S. national team player Brad Guzan patrols the goal.
Back in action for the first time since the World Cup, Guzan trained with the rest of the Villa team at BBVA Compass Stadium on Thursday ahead of Saturday night’s BBVA Compass Dynamo Charities Cup encounter (8 p.m. CT; TICKETS).
The Illinois native has had to be patient on the international stage given the form of first-choice goalkeeper Tim Howard. Still, he has 24 U.S. caps and at 29 is six years younger than the Everton man.
Guzan made his name at Chivas USA then switched from MLS to EPL in 2008, following the likes of Howard, Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and Marcus Hahnemann across the pond. A teammate of Friedel at Villa, Guzan had to be patient but established himself as Villa’s regular first-choice ‘keeper in 2012-13, making 36 English Premier League appearances and winning two club player of the year accolades.
Last season he featured in all 38 league games for Villa. “His first day back training after the World Cup today—great to see him,” Guzan’s back-up, the veteran former Ireland international Shay Given, told reporters on Thursday. “He’s a top ‘keeper and he’s proved that over the last couple of years in the Premier League, he’s really on top form.”
Villa’s preseason started with a win at English fourth-division side Mansfield Town last week, before a 2-0 victory over FC Dallas in Frisco on Wednesday. They return to the UK on Sunday ahead of their first English Premier League assignment of the 2014-15 season, a road trip to Stoke City.
The Dynamo beat Stoke 2-0 in last year’s Charities Cup with fine goals from two British players, Andrew Driver and Giles Barnes. Saturday marks the sixth annual Charities Cup match and the third against an English club. The Dynamo lost 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers in 2009 and have also played Spanish side Valencia, Aguila from El Salvador and Mexico’s Monterrey.
“The Premier League season is three weeks away now, or just over, and it’s all about getting match fit for the players and training here will help us here before we go back to the colder climate of the UK,” Given said. He is expecting the Dynamo to be tough opponents on Saturday, and clearly has a strong grasp of Texas fundamentals: “By all accounts Houston are better than Dallas, that’s what I’ve been told,” he smiled.
Given has plenty of respect for the American soccer scene in general. “They showed the fans in the fanzones in America, out in their tens of thousands watching the games and I think there’s a huge interest in the country, especially just after the World Cup, especially after America doing so well. I don’t think anyone gave them a chance of getting through the group but they proved a lot of people wrong,” he said.
Villa’s traveling roster contains plenty of experienced internationals in the outfield, too, including Englishmen Darren Bent, Kieran Richardson, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Joe Cole (who is nursing a minor injury), Belgian striker Christian Benteke, Frenchman Charles N’Zogbia and Philippe Senderos, who played for Switzerland at the World Cup. Talented young attacking midfielder Fabian Delph is also one to watch.
The club from Birmingham have two all-time greats directing operations from the bench. Manager Paul Lambert was an outstanding midfielder in Scotland for Celtic and in Germany for Borussia Dortmund, among other teams. The 44-year-old’s assistant, Roy Keane, was one of the most dominant and combative central midfielders of his generation and spent 12 years with Manchester United.
Dynamo winger Andrew Driver, who grew up in Scotland, is looking forward to meeting Lambert. “He’s obviously a legend in Scotland. It was rare for a Scottish player in recent years to have done what he’ s done—gone to Borussia Dortmund and fit in and win the Champions League [in 1997],” he said.
“Probably him and John Collins were the last two real European stars from Scotland. And he’s also gone and done really well as a manager. These are guys that in Scotland we grew up watching and wanting to replicate.”
Like Lambert, Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear was born in Glasgow. “There are a lot of Scots in the English Premier League and he’s one of the many and by all accounts a good one,” Kinnear said. “He had a great career at Celtic—scored a wonderful goal against Rangers that I actually pulled up on YouTube to show the guys—and everybody knows who Roy Keane is.”
Villa have a rich past, making them one of European soccer’s most famous names. Toronto FC striker Luke Moore grew up only a couple of miles from Villa’s stadium and was with the club between the ages of 7 and 22, making his first team debut for them aged 18 and going on to make nearly 100 appearances.
“Any English person knows the history of Aston Villa and what kind of club it is, it’s probably top six in terms of English clubs. I think they’re on a bit of a rebuilding stage but it’s a massive club, I’ve got nothing but great memories from there, they kind of raised me, so I wish them the best,” he told HoustonDynamo.com.
“I think they’re one of the sleeping giants in England, it’ll be nice to test ourselves against a Premier League team,” said Driver. “They’ve got a massive fanbase, a great stadium, a lot of history. There’s a lot of teams in England with a lot of history but they’re up there.”
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.