Photo by Rich Schultz/ISIphotos.com
By JOHN BOSCHINI
CARY, N.C. – Over the last few years, Tim Howard has had no shortage of memorable moments in a United States jersey. His performance in the 2-0 upset of Spain in the 2009 Confederation Cup, a kick in the ribs courtesy of Emile Heskey during the World Cup in Rustenburg last June, and, nine days later, the throw that initiated perhaps the most famous moment in American soccer history spring quickly to mind.
For Howard, though, a friendly played in June, 2008, still sticks out in his mind. In front of a sold-out Giants Stadium, Howard made seven saves to hold then-top-ranked Argentina to a 0-0 draw in the final game before the start of World Cup qualifying.
“I get to thinking about it more as the game comes up. I think it’s certainly up there close to the top as far as career highlights,” Howard said. “The opponent, the location and the tremendous pride I feel when I pull on the national team jersey came together for one individual performance.”
On Saturday, the New Jersey native gets a second shot at Argentina, now ranked fourth in the world, when the two teams clash at New Meadowlands Stadium. Howard says he’s looking forward to a rematch with the international giant but is also aware of the increased expectations the last two years have brought.
“It’s always fun when we play at home and we see these big, huge American football stadiums sold out or close to being sold out. It’s a pretty cool thing for soccer in America,” Howard said. “There’s a level of expectations fans have set now for themselves and for us. They pay good money to come see a show and it’s up to us to dig in and put in a good performance as a team and get results.”
Despite the stature of the opponent and the massive crowd set to be on hand, Howard knows that these friendlies are just that, friendlies, and the main focus is winning this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup and getting into the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil.
“Hands down we want to win the Gold Cup,” Howard said. “I think that we would be selling everyone short to say that we haven’t made that a priority for ourselves. Nothing short of getting into the final and winning it is going to be deemed a success.”
Part of the long-term success for the national team is an infusion of youth into an aging defense. New York Red Bulls standout Tim Ream, 23, and Leeds United's Eric Lichaj, 22, are set to take on more substantial roles, and Howard knows how important it is to integrate new additions as quickly as possible.
“The most important thing is time of the field, opening lines of communication and figuring out what helps each other go,” Howard said. “Sometimes you have to do it in the thick of games but in the course of two, three and four years, when you come to the end of the road it usually pays off.”
Both at Everton and when playing for the USA, Howard has developed a reputation as a vocal goalkeeper. It’s not uncommon to see the 32-year-old charging out from the net to confront a defender about a missed tackle or blown assignment. It’s a style that Howard thinks defenders, both for club and country, have grown to respect.
“They know I’m not a bad guy and most of the time I’m a friend to them,” he said. “It’s gotten to a point where they feel they can give it back to me, and that’s a good sign because I dish out enough criticism and praise. I feel like they take it positively.”
In the end, the mission for Howard and whatever defenders he’s playing behind is very simple.
“That’s to keep the ball out of the net. It doesn’t matter if it’s by hook or by crook, you have to do it.”