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CONMEBOL way above CONCACAF

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Tim Howard happy to be back in U.S. fold; Gonzalez ready for second chance

ESPN FC's Kasey Keller gives his take on the goalkeeping conundrum Jurgen Klinsmann faces ahead of the USMNT's World Cup qualifier in Guatemala.

GUATEMALA CITY -- Tim Howard remembers the one and only time when the U.S. men's national team walked out of the Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores with a win over Guatemala.

The year was 2008. A Carlos Bocanegra goal and some stout defending enabled the U.S. to claim a 1-0 victory that bore a closer resemblance to a street fight than a soccer game. Every other time, the U.S. has walked away with a draw, including a 1-1 encounter in 2012. The blueprint, then, is well established.

"This is a pretty tough atmosphere for us," Howard said prior to Thursday's practice session. "An early start is important, but just the intensity with which we start. Obviously defensively, we'd like to stay solid. They're at home. They have to make the game. It's kind of for us just to chill out, weather any storms that they have, and we can make our chances. If we get 'em and take 'em, we should be okay."

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Granted, Howard entered this particular training camp in a very unfamiliar position. An even run of form punctuated by some notable errors has seen him lose his spot in the Everton starting lineup for the first time since he joined the club back in 2006. He last played a game on Jan. 24 in a 2-1 loss to Swansea City, and has been an unused substitute in the eight games since. Yet Howard insists he hasn't changed his approach at all, and that it hasn't been difficult to switch gears between club and country.

"Watching is never easy," he said. "But training, coming in and being a part of things is easy.

"I train every day, I push the tempo, make sure that I'm on the winning side of things in training. The rest has never been up to me."

In terms of the two upcoming World Cup qualifiers, it will be up to U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann to make the call as to who starts in goal. Earlier on Thursday, he indicated during a roundtable with reporters that Howard and Brad Guzan would split the two games coming up against Los Chapines. But reading the tea leaves, one gets the sense that Klinsmann prefers to go with Howard in the tougher environments, and it looks like that will be the case on Friday.

"[Howard], he's a competitor, he doesn't want to give away anything," Klinsmann said. "He wants to be in our picture for as long as he plays, rightfully so, and that's what we want to see from him. Be hungry week in, week out. That shows when he comes in here, he's taking over, he's hungry. He's a leader in this environment."

Howard Guzan US Training 160324
Jurgen Klinsmann hasn't revealed whether Tim Howard or Brad Guzan will start in goal on Friday vs. Guatemala.

Either way, Howard will see the field at some point in these next two games. And then it will be back to Everton to finish his final EPL campaign before joining the Colorado Rapids. There were times this season when Howard's relationship with the Goodison Park faithful was strained, but when that topic was broached, Howard insisted that the Everton fans have been "amazing."

"It's been a love affair ever since I got there," he said. "They're passionate about winning. So am I. They get pissed off, I get pissed off. You have to be there to feel it. It's fantastic."

Howard admitted saying goodbye will be difficult.

"For me, it will be sad. But there will be momentous occasions because it's a place I love. It will be sad to leave, but it will be a nice farewell."

For now, Howard's focus is on the next two games, one in which he'll play, and the other he'll sit. And in both, he'll hope his side records a similar result to that night back in 2008.

ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle discusses the USMNT's upcoming match against Guatemala in Guatemala City.

Notes:

-- On Thursday, Klinsmann insisted that both forward Jozy Altidore (hamstring) and defender-midfielder Fabian Johnson (groin) would be available for Friday's match. But at Thursday's training session -- the part that was open to the press at least -- some serious doubts were cast on Johnson's fitness. He ventured onto the field wearing running shoes, and was limited to running on the side with a member of the U.S. training staff. It now seems highly unlikely that he'll play in Friday's match, begging the question as to why Klinsmann forced him to hop on a transcontinental flight when his club side, Borussia Moenchengladbach, had said Johnson was looking at a "spell on the sidelines."

-- Change has done Omar Gonzalez good, perhaps even great. As he answered questions from reporters, the positive vibe was unmistakable. Gonzalez's move to Pachuca has rejuvenated his career. He's playing every week, and embracing the challenge of playing in a new league.

"I've been loving life," he said before practice Thursday. "The club has been great to me and my family. Everything has been pretty easy. The city is safe. You can't ask for more than that."

A rueful look did appear on Gonzalez's face when he spoke of his departure from the LA Galaxy. He admitted that the Galaxy had told him he would have to take about a 50 percent pay cut in order to stay.

Fortunately for Gonzalez, Pachuca came calling and he hasn't put a foot wrong, both on and off the field. Gonzalez even remarked that he has been pushed by the greater emphasis on possession in Liga MX and even physically, which isn't the league's reputation.

"The thing I'm most excited about is I'm learning again," he said. "I'm learning a new style, and I'm being pushed in those ways as well. With the Galaxy, playing with Bruce [Arena] for seven years, there's one system and that's it. Now I'm learning a different system and that's exciting to me."

Omar Gonzalez, left, helped Pachuca shut down Club America's high-flying attack in Los Tuzos' 4-1 win last Saturday in the Estadio Azteca.
Omar Gonzalez's career has been rejuvenated at Pachuca, leading to a recall to the U.S. team.

Gonzalez even agreed to go along with wearing a Darth Vader costume at the behest of club owner Jesus Martinez at his unveiling, with the owner even calling Disney to make sure it was OK.

"If they called Disney to see if it was OK, then I guess I had to do it," Gonzalez said with a smile.

"I think the underlying story here is I'm having fun. I'm happy, I'm playing well."

He's back with the U.S. national team, too, and Klinsmann lauded Gonzalez's form over the past week.

"There's just a maturing process coming with it, with a change like that," the U.S. manager said. "It's not only a change within the same league, it's a change of life. He seems, for him, to have really made the right decision."

-- While the two qualifiers are foremost in Klinsmann's thoughts, planning for the Copa America Centenario has already begun. Klinsmann indicated that shortly after most European leagues finish up on May 14 or 15, he'll bring in the Europe-based members of the squad for training camp in a city on the East Coast. ESPN FC's Doug McIntyre later reported that the team will spend its time prior to the tournament in Miami.

"Get them over, get started with training," Klinsmann said. "Don't have any kind of week wasted."

Klinsmann pointed to the multi-week break that Europe-based players had prior to last year's Gold Cup -- one that was necessitated by the tournament being held in July -- as a reason why the team underperformed in that tournament.

"[The players] think, 'Oh, I have to run myself back up to 100 miles per hour," he said. "It's very difficult, pretty much impossible. So that last 10-15 percent was not there."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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