The U.S. national team goalkeeper has heard how the United States should be better, how a different coach would get better results than Bob Bradley. How the team could be improved if different players were called up.
He laughs at all of it.
The veteran goalkeeper laughs because he’s heard these things for years, even as the United States continues to improve. Even as more Americans move to European leagues. Even as the United States faces tougher competition and continues to put up strong results.
Recent losses have done nothing to shake Howard’s belief that the United States can go to this summer’s World Cup and have a good showing.
“I’m happy with where we are and where we’re going,” Howard said of the national team.
“As a whole, what you see is what you get with us at this point. We are who we are. Are we going to get better at the things we’re good at? Yeah, I hope so, and I think so, we don’t have a lot of time to do it but we’re hopefully going to get better in these next few months.”
That improvement won’t be in the form of some drastic change in style, but rather a sharpening of the defend-and-counter approach that has helped the Americans reach last summer’s Confederations Cup final as well as push top teams such as Argentina and Brazil.
Howard understands that the approach might not be aesthetically pleasing, but he points to the results as proof that the Americans have gone about things the right way.
“If you want us to be Brazil, we’re not going to be,” Howard said. “We’re a hard-working team whose got loads of endeavor and loads of spirit and in certain areas of the field we’ve got some craft and some guile and some sexiness for lack of a better word, but in general we do what we do well.
“I think back over the years, that 2002 team that got to the quarterfinals and was one handball away from the semifinals,” Howard said.
“You know what they did? They defended well behind the ball, they broke out, they counterattacked and used Earnie Stewart on the wings and young Landon Donovan and young (DaMarcus) Beasley, with (Brian) McBride to hold up the ball.
“They weren’t any different, they weren’t any better on the ball, so I just think people are reaching sometimes for something that we’re not.
“That same team people have a problem with drew Argentina, took Brazil and gave them all they could handle, and beat Spain,” Howard said. “There was nothing different in those games. We defended our box well, we kept ourselves tight, we broke out and the few chances we had we took them. There’s nothing different about it.”
“You can put this current team against the best teams in U.S. Soccer history. I don’t think we’re far and away the best, but I don’t think we’re far from the top.”
Howard came away from last week’s 2-1 loss to the Netherlands feeling the U.S. team held its own against the mighty Dutch. While the home side dominated possession as expected, the Americans limited the number of clear chances the Dutch created and nearly found an equalizer late in the match after Carlos Bocanegra pulled the Americans to within a goal.
“You look at how good that they are and for the most part we kept them at bay,” Howard said. “It was never going to be a game before Wednesday or after Wednesday, that we were going to dominate.
“We kept them at bay and the best chance that they got in the first half they converted,” Howard said. “Great run by (Wesley) Sneijder, even if Johnny (Bornstein) doesn’t pull him down he’s going to have a really good look at goal.
“Having said that, they didn’t pepper us. They dominated possession, but they didn’t pepper us. Was it a bit of a boring game, and did we have to sit back and defend? Sure, but when you look all over the world when a dominant team is playing at home that’s the way it works.”
The most consistent and arguably the best player on the U.S. national team, Howard hasn’t had to endure much criticism in his three years as his country’s No. 1, but he has seen others, such as head coach Bob Bradley, take their share of flack for what some consider to be less than optimum progress by the U.S. national team in recent years.
“A lot of people who count, a lot of people who matter think Bob Bradley is doing a good job and think he’s the right man for the job, including myself,” Howard said.
“The grass is always greener isn’t it? The bottom line is if you brought in a different coach you wouldn’t get a different Tim Howard. I am who I am. All of a sudden our midfielders wouldn’t have Cristiano Ronaldo’s feet.
“Having said that, I think Bob’s done a very good job. I think it’s about results and if you look at where we’ve gone. In the last couple of years we won the Gold Cup, got to another Gold Cup final. We got to a Confederations Cup final, and by the way, we won our CONCACAF group. We didn’t finish second or third. We finished first.
“Were there struggles along the way? There are always going to be struggles along the way.”
Howard’s individual struggles as a goalkeeper seem like ages ago, when he was dropped as Manchester United’s starting goalkeeper in just his second season with the club. Since joining Everton, Howard has become one of the club’s best players and one of the best goalkeepers in the Barclay’s Premier League.
“I think he’s improved with age,” said Everton manager David Moyes, who brought Howard from Manchester United in the summer of 2006.
“He’s become a very consistent goalkeeper, which is probably the key to being a top goalkeeper, that you don’t make mistakes, that you’re not getting done with blunders and howlers.
“We rely on him a lot here,” Moyes said. “He’s a leader, and I can see that happening with the USA team as well. I can see Tim Howard becoming one of the main players and one of the players a lot of the pool look up to.”
Howard’s professional future is very much tied to Everton, having signed a new five-year contract with the Toffees last year. While he can foresee playing out his career at Everton, he admits to being open to the idea of returning to MLS, where he began his professional career in 1998 with the then-New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now known as the New York Red Bull).
He turned 31 last Saturday and believes that the end of his current contract, when he’ll be 35, will be a good time to assess whether a return to MLS makes sense.
“As good as MLS was when I left, I think it’s gotten so much stronger,” Howard said. “The expansion teams have coming and done well and there’s been such a buzz created about it. I’m excited for the league and I think would I go back to play? Yes. Would I like to do that? Yes.
“I would say it would have to certainly be the right situation,” Howard said. “The outstanding thing, aside from money and location and coaching and teammates, has to be my desire to play. I think when I come to training here (at Everton) every day, and play in games, there’s still butterflies in my stomach.
"There’s still an anxiety that I don’t want to screw up and I want to be amazing and great. I’m passionate about it, I yell I scream and demand the best from my teammates.
“I’ve seen too many players go to MLS and not have that,” Howard said. “You have guys say ‘I’m going to MLS to knock about and have people say how great I was with the national team and take a few pictures in my hometown.’
“It’s not really in my makeup. If I want to go back, I want to have that same desire where it’s going to piss me off if we lose and I’m going to be elated if we win. All those things are important to me, and if I don’t have that then there’s no sense in talking about going back.”
Howard still has several years to think about an MLS return. For now, his focus is on continuing to excel for Everton and to prepare to play in his first World Cup.
After just missing the U.S. World Cup squad in 2002, and making the team as Kasey Keller’s back-up in 2006, Howard is poised to start in his first World Cup, and while he has played in some of the biggest matches the sport has to offer, he acknowledges that this summer’s World Cup will serve as a new high point in an already impressive career.
“I’ve played in a lot of big games, and feel like I can take things in stride, but I realize that the world Cup is the pinnacle, it’s the holy grail for all players,” Howard said. “It’s going to be special and I’m excited to see if we can step up to the challenge.”
Ives Galarcep is FoxSoccer.com’s newest senior writer who will be covering U.S. Soccer and MLS.