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Howard leads USA by words, actions

FOX Soccer News: Preview of USA's World Cup qualifier vs. Honduras.
FOX Soccer News: Preview of USA's World Cup qualifier vs. Honduras.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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SALT LAKE CITY

FOREIGN TRADE

Click here to review Tim Howard's best career moments overseas.

Tim Howard is a talker. Hunching his tightly toned body forward in a fauteuil of the weirdly Versailles-esque Grand America Hotel on the eve of the United States men’s national team World Cup qualifier with Honduras (live, Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET), the American goalkeeper takes obvious delight in it.

Howard talks on the field and off, any chance you give him, and as quickly as he can, sometimes swallowing the end of one sentence in his eagerness to get the next one out. During games, the decibel-level blasts upwards. Then, Howards screams a lot; mostly at defenders, keeping his back line, well, in line.

This has been acutely necessary of late as head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has introduced an entirely new defense. In recent qualifiers, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez have formed the pairing in central defense while DaMarcus Beasley has played left back and Geoff Cameron or Brad Evans right back. Besler and Gonzalez are newcomers to the international level, with a mere 16 caps between them, while the other three are new to those positions respectively.

Yet, guided by Howard, they have forged a firm collective, conceding a lone goal over the last four qualifiers. They were bedrock to the USA’s surge into first place in the Hexagonal with three wins and a tie in spite of scoring just five goals in that span.

“Tim’s influence on that back line is tremendously important,” says Klinsmann. “His experience, his way of talking to them, of guiding them, to keep those dots connected, that is Tim’s work.”

The Everton goalkeeper has become a mainstay in Jurgen Klinsmann's squad (Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images).

All the principals ascribe their success in building a back line on the fly to that communication – to the yelling, if you will. It begins with Howard’s mouth.

“You have to yell, you have to talk, you have to go out to dinner, you have to have drinks together, you have to go through ups and downs, you have to make mistakes,” he says in his rapid-fire patter.

Howard is the first to admit that the attitude he projects – which looks like that of a bully to outsiders, who see him seething and hollering, veins bulging on his buffed dome – is an affectation. “It’s all an act,” he says. “All of the bravado is an act. It’s all to get a reaction. The next play could make the difference, especially in the back.”

The urgency and the volume with which Howard directs his defense is the product of the peril they face. “There’s less margin for error [in the back] than anywhere else,” he says. “You can’t make a mistake or you get punished for it, particularly at this level. You have to be right basically 9 ½ times out of 10, which is really difficult. That speaks to how delicate the cohesion is and how delicate the balance of getting it exactly right is.”

And so he yells. Not because he enjoys correcting or berating anybody, but because that, in his experience, is the most efficient way to get the job done. “I am who I am,” Howard says. “I’m a constant talker. When I have to get on somebody I get on him and I don’t mince my words. The reason I do that is because that’s the way I always learn best.

“It’s not the right way or the wrong way, it’s just when I was coming up through the ranks, when I went to Manchester United, when I went to Everton, the guys who I learned most from, who get the best reaction out of me, were the ones who never let me off the hook, who always drilled things into me,” he says. “Lothar Matthaus, when he played in New York [for the MetroStars], he would say to me, ‘You need to speak, you need to tell me.’ And this was a guy who had played everywhere. That was eye-opening to me. When I went to Man United, Rio Ferdinand was the same. He would turn around and yell at me to talk more to him.

“I took that on board. That that was the way I found success. So I’m always trying to stay on top of guys. We can never stop communicating. Even the best defenders don’t have eyes in the back of their heads – you’re their eyes, you’re their ears. It has to be that way. There’s no room for error.”

All that yelling, by the way, is very much appreciated by the defenders who bear the brunt of it. “It’s great,” says Evans. “I would much rather have that than no communication at all. He’s not trying to beat you down or anything, it’s because we want to win soccer games, and that’s the goal for everybody. It’s not personal attacks, it’s, ‘We need to do this better and we need to do it now if we want to get through this game.’”

The criticism is unfailingly constructive, argues Gonzalez. “He’s very vocal and he’s making sure that you’re getting everyone in the right positions and not just let you ball-watch,” he says. “He’s really yelling at you to make sure you’re getting people in the right spots because if you do that you make the game a lot easier for yourself and the rest of the team.”

It is telling for Howard’s organizational and goalkeeping abilities that at 34, a wholly new defense is being built around him without even the mere suggestion that he himself might be due for replacement ever arising. That’s because Howard – who has overcome Tourette’s Syndrome, which causes him facial tics, peaking along with the anxiety before games – has shown no signs of slowing.

GREAT PRETENDERS

Building up talent is simply asking for trouble. Just ask these guys.

His lifestyle and training habits are tailored to prolong his career. There has never been any question about his devotion to his craft. “You have to be more diligent [as you age],” Howard says. “I train hard; I don’t miss trainings. You have to keep a good rhythm. I have to mind my age. My maintenance [is higher]. I lift [weights] harder and heavier than I ever have now at 34, to keep my body fit.”

A certain savvy a goalkeeper acquires with time compensates for the raw athleticism slipping away. “When I was younger, I just relied on my athleticism because I didn’t have the other piece of the puzzle,” says Howard. “Now that I have that experience I don’t try to go looking for things to do, to show you how athletic I am. I now know how much easier you can make a save, just by being in the right position. That’s why goalkeepers get better with age – you learn the intricacies of the position.”

Howard has a strong command of those intricacies, both of his position and the ones in front of it. And he will let everybody know, too. As loudly as is necessary.

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