Clad in bright green from neck to knee, Ethan Horvath stood alone in the maw of the goalposts, the collective gaze of 37,648 spectators fixated on his 6-foot-3 frame. The U.S. Men’s National Team held a tenuous one-goal advantage against rival Mexico in the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League final at Empower Field, and with mere seconds remaining in overtime play, El Tri had earned a penalty kick. It was a freebie that would decide whether Mexico could force a shootout—or if the Yanks could win the trophy outright.

The then-25-year-old Horvath shouldn’t even have been on the pitch that warm night in June 2021. He’d entered the game in the 69th minute after the first-stringer—Zack Steffen—suffered a knee injury. “If you’re on the bench as a keeper, you don’t expect to come in the game,” Horvath, a native of Highlands Ranch, told CBS later. “It’s just a whole bunch of emotions.” Yet there he was—his friends and family packed in the stands, his former prep coach sitting behind the goal—the outcome of the contest in his padded mitts.

As Mexico’s Andrew Guardado lined up the penalty kick, Horvath attempted to steel himself against the moment. He stood still, framed by the goalposts, with arms raised and knees bent. At the shot, he dove headlong to his right and punched the ball away from the netting, all but ensuring an American victory.

The stadium erupted, and when Horvath secured the ball, his teammates surrounded him, screaming in his ear. “For me, it’s not so much the penalty save,” Horvath told ESPN FC. “It’s to have it in my hometown and in front of family and friends. That’s what I remember the most, being able to share that moment with everybody.”

That save not only elevated Horvath from anonymous backup to national hero—it kickstarted a momentous couple of years for the now-27-year-old. In 2022, Horvath was named to the national team’s World Cup roster, becoming the first Colorado native to represent his country in soccer’s preeminent event. Now, he’s leading tiny Luton Town Football Club to the precipice of promotion from the English Football League’s Championship division—basically British soccer’s Triple-A—to the Premier League, the most watched sports association in the world.

And at least one fan believes Horvath’s ascent has only just begun. “After this experience he had with the World Cup…we think he’s coming into his own,” says Peter Horvath, Ethan’s father. “We hope [playing for Luton Town FC] will be a marquee move for him.”

United States goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, wearing all green, blocks a penalty kick by Mexico during the second half of the CONCACAF Nations League Finals at Empower Field at Mile High on June 6, 2021. The United States beat Mexico 3-2.
United States goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, wearing all green, blocks a penalty kick by Mexico during the second half of the CONCACAF Nations League Finals at Empower Field at Mile High on June 6, 2021. The United States beat Mexico 3-2. (The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Wherever Horvath’s life would lead, there was never much doubt about what would take him there.

Peter, after all, had played professionally for the Denver Avalanche of the Major Indoor Soccer League and has coached the girls’ team at Columbine High School for 26 years, winning three state titles.

Horvath watched from the sidelines, learning to dribble shortly after learning to walk. At 10, he announced his decision to become a goalkeeper, a move that makes sense in retrospect: For one, he was tall with big hands and a long and spindly frame that allowed him to reach balls that other players his age couldn’t. Perhaps more importantly, however, he possessed the proper mental makeup for the most psychologically taxing position in the sport.

“He’s always been very composed,” Peter says. “He has always had this level of confidence about himself, that he always has things under control.”

Horvath played youth soccer for Real Colorado, one of the most dominant clubs in the state, using his size and poise to manage games. Lorne Donaldson, Real Colorado’s president and executive director of coaching, says opposing coaches would instruct their players to abandon their usual training when facing Horvath; the sort of high-arching crosses in front of the net that would elude most goalies would be swallowed by the young keeper. When Horvath was 11, he was training with 16-year-olds.

“He always wanted to do something,” Donaldson said. “He always wanted to do extra. He always wanted to train. When he started growing and filled out, you knew he was going to be special.”

That uniqueness quickly became apparent to teams from across the pond. Horvath attended Arapahoe High School until his senior year, when Norway’s Molde Fotballklubb, which had scouted him the previous year during a showcase in California, asked him to move to Europe and train with the team.

“I don’t think the decision itself was difficult,” Peter says. “The reality when it came to it was just kind of like, ‘We have to do this.’ You don’t want to regret it. In five or six or 10 years down the road, we didn’t want to say, ‘I wish we would have done this.’”

But the move didn’t only impact Ethan. For their son to legally join Molde as a minor, Peter and his wife, Deana, had to move with him to Norway. So Peter took a two-year sabbatical from his teaching post, sold their house and cars, and moved their belongings into storage. To qualify for residency in Norway, however, they had to have jobs.

Fortunately, Molde found them employment with a custodial company that cleaned its stadium and training facility. The work was rigorous and draining—mopping floors, cleaning toilets and windows, tidying up every crevice in a venue built to hold 11,000 people. “We asked ourselves a lot of times what we were doing and whether we had made the right decision and whether this was something we were going to regret,” Peter says. “But the reward of seeing how it was paying off for Ethan was what kept us going.”

“It’s not nice knowing your parents are cleaning toilets and cleaning up after your peers in the changing room, but at the same time, it was also nice because while training, I could always see them and give them a wave,” Horvath told U.S. Soccer last year. “The bigger picture took over from there.”

Goalkeepers Matt Turner (left) and Ethan Horvath of the United States Men's National Team interact during a training session on November 27, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
Goalkeepers Matt Turner (left) and Ethan Horvath of the United States Men’s National Team interact during a training session on November 27, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Getty Images)

It didn’t take long for that picture to come into focus. Horvath began playing for Molde’s senior team in 2015 as a 19-year-old before moving to Club Brugge in Belgium, alternating between starter and backup for five seasons (winning league titles in three of them). From there, he joined English club Nottingham Forest in 2022 and, as a backup, helped the squad earn promotion from the Championship to the Premier League.

It wasn’t until this season at Luton Town, however, when Horvath finally became a full-time starter—and quickly showed why he deserved the role. With Horvath manning the pipes, the club has conceded only 39 goals in 46 games, the second-fewest among the Championship’s 24 squads. His 19 clean sheets are the second-most of any player, and his save percentage ranks him fourth among the 30 qualifying goalkeepers in the league.

More important, Luton Town finished third (out of 24) in the standings, earning a much-coveted spot in the league’s promotion playoffs. The top two teams, Burnley and Sheffield United, won automatic promotions to the Premiership; the third- through sixth-place teams face off in a tournament to play for the final spot. Luton Town will face Sunderland in the semifinals, with the first match on May 13 and the second on May 16. The team with the highest aggregate score will advance to the final on May 27.

Horvath is still balancing international play, too. After debuting with his country in 2016 at 21 years old, the keeper has spent much of his time with the national team as a backup. But when called upon, as he was in Denver in June 2021, Horvath has offered strong glimpses of his potential.

“I think he will become the U.S. starting keeper,” Donaldson says. “He’s very young, goalkeeper-wise. He’s got a lot more stuff to do.”

Whether or not Horvath becomes the first-stringer, his mere inclusion on the national team is notable. Colorado, and the Denver area in particular, has a thriving soccer community, with tens of thousands of youth players competing for local clubs and three Colorado natives (Lindsey Horan, Sophia Smith, and Mallory Swanson) currently on the two-time defending World Cup champion U.S. Women’s National Team’s roster.

Even if Horvath’s rise doesn’t provide a catalyst for a similar Colorado surge on the men’s side, he has fulfilled a dream—and more than repaid his parents’ sacrifice.

“You can see he’s just coming into his prime now,” Peter says. “You can see it in his personality. You can see it in taking on more of a leadership role with this group and being given the opportunity. You can see him kind of blossoming into being more of a well-rounded goalkeeper. I think that’s what’s incredibly rewarding for me and Deana right now—we think he’s just now starting to learn even more and starting to see who he can be.”

Craig Meyer
Craig Meyer
Craig Meyer is a Denver-based freelance writer. Before moving to Colorado in June 2022, he spent the previous 10 years as a sports writer with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, primarily covering college basketball and football.