Tony Meola. Brad Friedel. Kasey Keller. Tim Howard. Brad Guzan … Josh Lambo?
As the goalkeeping scene in the United States took its shape 10 years ago, at one point that last name was a possible option to continue a strong lineage of men between the sticks for the U.S. Men’s National Team.
But on Sunday, Lambo wasn’t on a soccer field. Instead, he was on a football field converting two field goals and two extra points as the kicker for the NFL’s San Diego Chargers in their 27-20 loss away to the Green Bay Packers.
A Chicago kid who briefly lived in Wisconsin before entering U.S. Soccer’s U-17 Residency program, Lambo never could guessed he’d be in the hallowed Lambeau Field on a NFL Sunday. Back then as a 16-year-old in 2006, he impressed English Premier League side Everton so much that he was offered a contract with the club if he could gain a European passport.
The following year he ended up making the 2007 U-17 FIFA World Cup team, and after the side conceded seven goals in its two group losses to Tunisia and Tajikistan, Lambo found himself in goal for the final group game against a Belgium side that featured Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke.
With the U.S. needing a 2-0 win and some help to advance as they entered the final group match, Lambo recalls the blunt wisdom he received from U-17 Goalkeeping Coach Tim Mulqueen as he stepped on the field for warm-ups.
“Now Josh, no pressure here, but you need to pitch a shutout,” he told the young ‘keeper.
Not only did he keep the clean sheet, Lambo nearly opened the scoring in the 22nd minute.
“It had been raining and the field was slick,” said Lambo. “I had a free kick about 10 yards outside the box and launched it forward for Ellis McLoughlin. He had a defender right on him and he was pretty close to the top of the arc. It went over both their heads and their goalie – his name was Jo Coppens, he was 6’3” at age 17 – literally had to dive backwards and tip the ball over the bar to make sure it didn’t go in.”
Benteke was sent off in the 36th minute, opening the door for the U.S. in the second half as the late Kirk Urso tallied in the 63rd before Mykell Bates added the needed second goal eight minutes later. Though he didn’t get a goal, Lambo stood tall, making three saves while earning Man of the Match honors as the team advanced to a knockout round date with Germany.
The Round of 16 match proved tougher for the U.S., with Lambo making eight saves as his goal was kept under siege for much of the contest. His performance was so strong that following one furious German sequence which Lambo thwarted, Scottish referee Craig Thomson ran up and gave him a nod of acknowledgement for his effort.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Lambo remembered. “I sort of asked in my head if the referee had just done that.”
In the end, two second half goals from Richard Sukuta-Pasu canceled out Mykell Bates’ injury time consolation goal as the U.S. bowed out to Germany. Despite the defeat, Lambo was again named Man of the Match, returning home to prepare for his entry in Major League Soccer the following season.
Selected eighth overall by FC Dallas in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft, Lambo knew he would have to bide his time for a few years as he sat behind the likes of Dario Sala, Kevin Hartman and former U.S. youth international Chris Seitz. Injuries and time spent away with the U.S. U-20 team at the 2009 FIFA World Youth Championships kept Lambo away from the field in his first few years with FC Dallas. He spent the season on loan with the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2010 and could never seem to unseat whoever was starting for the club.
Having never made a first team appearance, Lambo moved on following the 2011 season. He spent time on trial with Sheffield United in England and D.C. United in early 2012. Offers from NASL clubs and the chance at being MLS’s Pool Goalkeeper didn’t do enough to catch Lambo’s interest either.
“Ultimately, I decided I was done with soccer,” he said.
Already with an associate’s degree earned while playing for FC Dallas, Lambo, still aged 21, made the decision to get a four-year college degree, but he also decided he wasn’t putting aside an athletic career.
That summer, his older brother put him in contact with old college friend Taylor Mehlhaff, who had been a kicker at the University of Wisconsin and spent the 2008 NFL season with the New Orleans Saints.
“He taught me how to kick,” said Lambo. “I spent a weekend with him in early summer 2012 and kind of modified my soccer swing and it clicked. It came pretty quickly to me. We made a bunch of tape, continued to work with each other throughout the summer and eventually Texas A&M eventually got a hold of my tape.”
Lambo got his acceptance at A&M and walked on to the football team that fall. After a year as a backup, he became the team’s starting field goal kicker in 2013 and quickly learned that while the disciplines between being a goalkeeper and soccer and kicker in football were different, the mentality was very much the same.
“As a goalie, you have to be on your ‘A’ game at all times,” Lambo said. “You can’t take a play off; you can’t have a bad play. You’re not a forward where if you take six shots and you score one, you’re still a hero. If I’m in goal and I take six shots and only save one, I’m going to lose my job. You have to be perfect every time. You have to go one for one every time or else the entire team is punished. It’s the same thing for me with football. I don’t get three tries to try and get a first down. I get one kick and I’m not allowed to miss, because the team gets penalized -- we’re leaving points on the field and we’re giving our opponents a better starting position.”
Lambo would go on to convert 21 of his 25 attempts in his two years with the Aggies, leaving College Station with the highest field goal percentage in school history (84%). While he didn’t go to Texas A&M with the intention of going pro again, his collegiate success did make NFL scouts take notice, with his time spent at FC Dallas also playing a part.
“My stats in college were pretty good, but I think a lot of it was the fact that I was older and I had already been a pro,” said Lambo. “There was less of a learning curve for me and that ended up being attractive.”
Lambo wasn’t picked during the 2015 NFL Draft in Chicago, but he did get a preseason invite to join the San Diego Chargers this past summer. In the end, the former goalkeeper beat out veteran kicker Nick Novak on both distance and accuracy, earning the job after a strong preseason.
Four weeks into the regular season, Lambo found himself in his first game-winning field goal situation. With the Chargers tied 27-27 with the Cleveland Browns, Lambo converted a 34-yard game-winning conversion as time expired, giving San Diego their second win of the season.
Through his time developing with U.S. Soccer, Lambo says he learned not to let pressure situations affect him, in either code of football.
“I remember saying that Tim Mulqueen put us through so much in practice and we had worked so hard and seen everything that whenever the games came they were fun, because it was nothing that we hadn’t seen at practice already,” said Lambo. “It’s the same thing with a game-winning field goal. I’ve hit countless amounts of 30-40 yard field goals. It doesn’t matter what the scoreboard says or how much time is left. It’s the same uprights, the same ball, the same snapper and holder who are the best in the business – it’s just another kick.”
Lambo is 11 for 13 through six weeks of the NFL season with the San Diego Chargers. While his focus is firmly on football, he says he follows his former sport quite closely, keeping up with old teammates like Brek Shea and recently visited the U.S. Men’s National Team during their stay in Southern California.
Eight years on from his own turn in the FIFA U-17 World Championships, he says he’ll keep close tabs on how this year’s team performs in Chile. As he does, he hopes the current crop of players takes in the experience more than he did.
“I was arrogant as a kid being with the National Team,” Lambo said. “I thought I was going to roll through the U17s, the U20s, get to the Olympic team and get to the full team and play in a World Cup. Obviously that didn’t happen for me, so I took a lot of those experiences for granted. What I would do now to be able to go back and take more pictures, make more stories with those guys for my team that I hardly talk to anymore, and write things down so I can go back and reminisce.
“There’s nothing like being out there, wearing the crest over your heart, hearing the anthem before you’re about to play the sport that you love. I would tell all those guys to take it in and enjoy it as much as they can. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t get it back.”