As a goalkeeper who for years has been at the top of his game for both club and country, Tim Howard always had an exquisite sense of timing. With the news that Howard is stepping away from the U.S. national team for the next year, that remains the case.
Howard is taking the break in order to spend more time with his family, based in Memphis, Tennessee, precluding him from the additional time commitment that playing internationally brings. His absence will extend beyond next summer's Gold Cup.
"I am grateful for the willingness of both Jurgen Klinsmann and Everton manager Roberto Martinez to afford me the opportunity to spend time with my kids," Howard said in a news release from U.S. Soccer. "It's the right decision at the right time. Jurgen has always been up front with all the players in saying you have to earn your place, which is something I agree with, so I look forward to coming back next fall and competing for a spot."
Without question, Howard's experience, presence and ability will be missed, and he was one of the big reasons -- perhaps the biggest -- why the U.S. progressed out of a highly difficult group at the World Cup in Brazil.
His round-of-16 performance against Belgium -- one in which he delivered 15 saves -- has already become legend. But the fact that he's taking the break at the start of a World Cup cycle means the negative impact should be minimal. The position has long been among the deepest in the U.S. player pool, and that is still the case. Klinsmann indicated that Aston Villa's Brad Guzan, Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando, D.C. United's Bill Hamid, and Sean Johnson of the Chicago Fire would be among those he would be keeping an eye on as possible replacements.
That said, the job is clearly Guzan's to lose. His long apprenticeship -- he was been Howard's backup at each of the past two World Cups -- has seen him build an impressive set of credentials. He is entering his third season as Villa's starting goalkeeper, and has also deputized for Howard in some critical matches. He posted back-to-back shutouts against Costa Rica and away to Mexico during a crucial stretch of World Cup qualifying for the U.S. team. At present, there simply is no other keeper available that has Guzan's pedigree, and at age 29, he is entering the prime of his career.
Granted, it is Klinsmann's job to look beyond just one alternative to Howard, and the extent to which Rimando fits into his plans will bear watching. The RSL keeper will be 39 at the next World Cup -- the same age as Howard will be -- and while he wouldn't be the first goalkeeper to still be effective at that age, it is by no means guaranteed. That is why Hamid and Johnson will be watched closely during the next 10 months. Hamid in particular has enjoyed an excellent season with DCU and is a big reason why the team has enjoyed a bounce-back season after suffering through a three-win campaign in league play last season.
Yet perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the situation will be when Howard returns after next year's Gold Cup. Unlike Landon Donovan's cold-turkey break from all things soccer early in 2013 -- one that took place in the midst of World Cup qualifying -- this is a move that clearly has Klinsmann's blessing.
"I told him as long as he is the same Tim Howard that we always see performing well, he will be welcome back with open arms and right back competing for a spot," he said. "He knows that he has to prove that he deserves to be back."
Goalkeeper is a unique position on the field, however, in that the power of incumbency runs deep. It takes an injury or an extended run of poor form for a manager to make a switch. It allows for some wiggle room for the No. 1 keeper, one that Howard benefited from at times during the rare periods when he struggled.
Howard has stated that Guzan is his heir apparent, but it will be interesting to see how Guzan's history as Howard's perennial backup will affect Klinsmann's decision-making, not to mention Guzan's performances. He's used to being the player pushing the starter. Now he might be looking over his shoulder, though he has dealt with that to a lesser degree at club level.
It has all the makings of the Kasey Keller/Brad Friedel dynamic that took place during the 2002 World Cup cycle. Given the way that Friedel performed during that tournament, it ended up working out well for the U.S., but it required some deft handling by then-manager Bruce Arena. That could be the case this time with Klinsmann, and it may be that Howard's timing ends up being perfect in more ways than one.