- - Thursday, September 3, 2015

Tim Howard bristled at the notion. A backup goalkeeper? Him?

That’s the reality for the three-time World Cup veteran, whose heroic exploits in Brazil last summer saw him labeled as the “Secretary of Defense” by fans across the nation.

After a year-long sabbatical from the U.S. national team, Howard has been summoned for his first international match since the World Cup, yet he’ll be watching from the bench when the U.S. faces Peru on Friday at RFK Stadium. It will kick off Howard’s first stint as a second-string goalkeeper for club or country since 2006 — not that he’s one to buy into that type of thinking.

“I’ve never been a backup,” Howard said. “I think that’s a mentality. I work my tail off every day. I know what it means to compete at the highest level, to have a certain level of excellence, and I do that. I’ve never been a backup, never will be, so that’s not something I really worry about too much.”

Call him a backup, call him the former starter, call him competition for the job — however you slice it, Howard is not U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s first choice in goal. With 12 starts over the past year, Brad Guzan solidified himself between the posts in Howard’s absence.

Despite a questionable performance in a semifinal loss to Jamaica at this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, Guzan was named that tournament’s top goalkeeper. With just two friendlies separating the U.S. from next month’s Confederations Cup playoff against Mexico in suburban Los Angeles, Klinsmann has backed Guzan as his starter for at least the next three games.

“We are not making real changes right now,” Klinsmann said. “Brad is the No. 1. Tim is the No. 2. Tim accepted that because he was gone for more than a year from the team. Once we’ve got the Mexico game — hopefully successfully — out of the way, then we can think about maybe how we can split time.”

It was August 2014 when Howard announced he’d be taking a year off from international soccer, citing the opportunity to spend more time with his children.

The 36-year-old has been far from inactive, appearing in 42 matches for English Premier League club Everton during the 2014-15 campaign, but instead of flying across the globe during scheduled breaks for international matches, he used those nine-day periods as respites. After spending every summer since 2003 with the national team, Howard actually enjoyed a proper offseason and preseason this year.

Howard didn’t see much of the U.S. team during his sabbatical, saying he mostly caught highlights. (“I’m not a good watcher,” he said.) But, Howard emphasized that he never considered making the hiatus a permanent one.
“I never lost that passion,” Howard said. “I’ve been excited about this team. I missed it. I took a year out for my own reasons, for the right seasons — and one of those reasons wasn’t because I lost any passion.”

Guzan had served as Howard’s backup since 2007, traveling to two World Cups while never seeing the field, but the 30-year-old has a decorated resume of his own as he enters his fourth season as the starter for Premier League club Aston Villa.

For now, it’s Howard’s job to share his experience, provide depth behind Guzan and look to regain the starting spot after that Oct. 10 playoff, which will decide the region’s representative at the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia.

“You either have someone pushing you or you’re pushing someone else — that’s the nature of professional sports,” Guzan said. “I’ve been in this business now long enough to know that.”

Added Klinsmann: “Every experienced player has a certain way of carrying his energy into the group. Tim Howard, with his experience and who he is and what he’s done, he immediately will balance things out. He will calm people down. He will look around and he will give you his two thoughts on things, which is great.”

Guzan and Howard emphasized that their dynamic hasn’t changed, with the players calling themselves good friends no matter what the depth chart says.
Doing his best to shed the “backup” mentality, Howard said he’ll take the same approach he’s had since he debuted for the U.S. in 2002: “Come in, train hard, and keep myself fit and ready — and when the opportunity presents itself, take advantage of it.”

“Nothing changes for me,” Howard added. “I do all the same things. Come kickoff Friday, if I need to play I’ll be 100 percent ready. If I don’t, I don’t.”

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