Tim Howard knew, as he contemplated taking a year off from the national team after the 2014 World Cup, that the personal benefits — spending more time with his two children — may come at a professional price.
“Anytime you take a year out, you open doors for other people; but I knew that going into the decision,” Howard said Thursday morning at U.S. national training camp in Miami. “That was all part of that decision-making process. When I tell people it wasn’t easy, that’s one of the reasons.”
The three-time World Cup veteran, headed to Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids after 13 years in England with Manchester United and Everton, had been the go-to keeper on the U.S. team. He was as comfortable as an old, faded pair of blue jeans in that six-yard box. The starting job was his to lose.
But when he went on hiatus, Aston Villa’s Brad Guzan — six years Howard’s junior — stepped in and earned the opportunity to battle Howard for the position once Howard returned in September 2015.
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U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has rotated the two keepers ever since, and has not revealed who he plans to start in Sunday’s friendly at Puerto Rico or at next month’s Copa America Centenario. “We’ll have some conversations and make a decision,” is all Klinsmann would say when asked about the goalkeeper competition this week.
Howard and Guzan have accepted the situation, although each would naturally prefer to be anointed the permanent starter. This week’s camp, which ends Friday, is a chance for one to get the edge over the other.
“Training for me has always been my sanctuary, where I’ve outworked other people,” said Howard, 37. “It’s what I want to do. The manager makes the decisions. I’m not that concerned because I don’t make the decisions. I want to be a part of this team between now and the end of 2018, and that’s going to take many different shapes between now and then, so all I can do is work my hardest.”
Added Guzan: “Tim and I have worked together for quite some time. We’ve got a good relationship, good understanding of each other. That decision will be left up to Jurgen. As for us, we continue to bring what we’ve always brought — solid play and leadership.
“If your name and number is called, you try to play well and make a few saves and get a result.”
That maturity and perspective were gained over the years in the English Premier League, playing under pressure in front of some of the most passionate fans in the world. Neither Howard nor Guzan had the kind of season they had hoped for this year, but Howard’s final EPL game last week, a 3-0 win over Norwich, will forever be etched in his memory.
He was treated to an emotional sendoff by the Everton club and fans after 414 appearances and 133 clean sheets with the Blues. Howard was teary-eyed as he ran through a tunnel of teammates at Goodison Park.
“It was amazing,” Howard said. “I didn’t know what to expect. It was a sad day to leave, but a great sendoff. I’ve had such an amazing time there. It exceeded my expectations. The way that the club did it, how many people stayed after the match. It was memorable.”
Howard’s U.S. teammate, Geoff Cameron, who plays in England at Stoke City, said the ceremony was well-deserved.
“He’s been instrumental, huge for U.S. soccer,” Cameron said. “Going to ManUnited, a big club like that, then to Everton for such a long time. He’s paved the way for other guys to go over. You had guys like him, Brian McBride, Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, Clint Dempsey, they represented the flag.”
“Tim coming back to MLS it’s obviously sad in a way because I’m losing one of my friends in the UK who’s fairly close to me. But I’m happy he gets to go back to the States, closer to his family, friends. No question in my mind he’ll be fantastic for the Rapids. He’ll be a leader.”
Howard said packing his bags in England was bittersweet.
“As sad as I was to leave, I’m so excited for what lies ahead for me in Denver,” he said.
He is looking forward to being reunited with Pablo Mastroeni, the Rapids coach who played for the Miami Fusion and was a teammate of Howard’s on the U.S. team from 2002-09.
“He was just a warrior, a guy who I loved playing with,” Howard said. “You knew he was going to bring the fire, protect his teammates. He brings that to his coaching. I am really excited to get started.”