American goalkeeper Charlie Horton is taking a long-term view as he sets his sights on keeping Leeds United in safe hands for years to come. Phil Hay met the Elland Road prospect.
The best of the young footballers at Leeds United are rarely asked to be patient these days. Good enough tends to be old enough and the make-up of the club’s current squad promotes that ethos at Elland Road.
Charlie Horton, the club’s American goalkeeper, is playing a slightly longer game. While outfield players younger than him are taking their first-team appearances towards three figures, Horton knows that goalkeeping is a slower burn; a position where coaches are not inclined to take risks. When he came to Leeds on a two-year contract in May, he did so without the promise of immediate senior football.
The 20-year-old is a USA youth international and a prospect whom United’s coaching staff plainly see as a No 1 some way down the line.
He joined the club from Cardiff City this summer, doubtless recommended by Richard Hartis, who was goalkeeping coach at Cardiff last season and took the same job at Leeds in June.
“He has very good potential,” said head coach Uwe Rosler after completing the transfer. “He’s one who will push every single day to get better.”
Stereotypes notwithstanding, American goalkeepers tend to do so and England has seen its share: Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, Kasey Keller, Brad Guzan and Marcus Hahnemann.
He is certain, however, that goalkeeping proficiency on the other side of the Atlantic is no coincidence.
“I’m often asked why it is that American goalkeepers excel and I think it’s got something to do with being involved in all ball sports at a young age,” he said.
“You have basketball, American football, baseball. You’re constantly seeing a ball and using your hands. For Americans, that translates really well into goalkeeping.”
There is also a trend of longevity among them. Everton’s Howard is a Premier League keeper at the age of 36. Friedel – a native of Ohio where Horton grew up and someone who offered him guidance at a young age – retired at the end of last season aged 43.
The promise of many years ahead of him was why Horton wanted to come to Leeds, despite knowing that he would feature predominantly for United’s Under-21s this season and possibly next.
Leeds already had an established first choice in Marco Silvestri and they always intended to sign an experienced stand-in before the Championship season began.
The club looked at Mark Bunn, who eventually joined Aston Villa on a free transfer from Norwich City, and then recruited Ross Turnbull, the former Chelsea keeper, on a two-year deal from Barnsley.
“As a goalkeeper, a long-term plan is really important,” Horton said. “You look at a goalkeeper’s career and you can play until you’re 40 if you’re fit. You peak in you 30s. For me, at 20 years old, it’s about ticking along and building a really strong foundation to go from.
“Richard (Hartis) talks about goalkeeping being like a bridge – you break at your weakest point. If part of its steel and part of its string, you’ll break where it’s made of string.
“For your game to stand up, it’s got to be strong in all areas. If there are areas where it’s weak, it’ll fall apart. I’m looking to develop.
“I’m looking to push and support Marco, to learn from him and Ross and get games with the Under-21s.
“It’s all about growth. In a year or so when I’m ready to take the next step, I’ll hopefully be able to push on and stake a claim for a first-team place.”
Despite the presence of two other keepers in Rosler’s squad, Horton received a squad number and, unlike several other development squad players, was registered for first-team matches this season. He was part of the pre-match squad ahead of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Burnley – the first game of United’s Championship term – and a match shirt was supplied for him. Rosler, as expected, left him out of the final group of 18.
More surprisingly, Horton was missing from the development squad’s opening league match on Monday night and Eric Grimes played in a 2-1 defeat to Ipswich at Elland Road.
Leeds have not indicated whether Horton was injured or whether he might feature in some way during Thursday’s League Cup tie at Doncaster Rovers, a match for which Rosler plans to make changes.
Either way, Horton appears happy with his lot. “Playing Under-21s and training every day with the first team is exceptional for me,” he said.
“It’s the best of both worlds because I’m getting top-class training and, at the same time, getting regular games to keep ticking along.
“If there’s a chance to get out on loan then maybe that’s something we’ll look at but, right now, I’m really looking to start the season well, prove myself with the Under-21s and continue to develop with the first team every day.
“There’s a really good group here and they welcomed me with open arms. It has to be like that if we’re going to have success. The group needs to be really tight-knit.
“Any team in the Championship that has success is a team that plays together. You don’t get very far when you play as individuals.
“We understand we have to play well and that’s on our shoulders but we feel we’ve been put in a good position to do so. The team’s looking positive. We look like we’re going to mount a real go at it.”