Tim Howard, U.S. focused on Gold Cup victory despite squad shuffle, backlash
PHILADELPHIA -- As Tim Howard walked off the field following his third practice session in four days with the U.S. national team, the oddity of the situation wasn't lost on him.
On Sunday, smack in the middle of the Gold Cup, Howard was one of six players officially added to the U.S. roster by manager Bruce Arena. The group stage of the 2017 Gold Cup is done; now, only the knockout rounds remain. But as is oftentimes the case, coping with unique circumstances requires synthesizing the moment down to its essence. That remains Howard's approach.
"It's another way to prepare," noted Howard about the Gold Cup dynamics. "Obviously we've been training and we're in the middle of our season, so in terms of being fit and ready and all that stuff [we're fine]. Obviously the tournament side of it adds a different element, but we've got to win. Nothing changes in that regard."
Neither does the incessant drumbeat of competition within the team. Arena added goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez to the roster as well, joining Bill Hamid, who started against Nicaragua. The U.S. manager told reporters that it was "not likely" that Gonzalez would see the field and that his "guess" is that Howard will start.
It would seem that Gonzalez, who just had his onetime switch of affiliation from Mexico to the U.S. approved by FIFA, is in camp to get an idea of what life with the U.S. team is like and soak up the atmosphere so that it isn't such a shock to the system in the future. Training with the likes of Howard can't hurt either.
"We try to help guys along," said Howard. "Here, it's a little bit more cutthroat than it is with our club teams. You have to be ready, you have to be sharp. But it's a bunch of good guys on this team. It's not one of these teams that are looking to undercut you. Guys are here to help you. Of course we compete for spots, but guys are looking to help. [Gonzalez] and other young players, we're looking to help them along."
Howard has obviously seen lots of keepers come and go at both the club and the international level, each one boasting intentions of supplanting him. And the day is coming when someone will finally succeed.
So what does he look for when judging keepers and perhaps determining whether one of them has what it takes to overtake him?
"I think at this level, which is certainly different than our clubs, you have to be mentally strong," said Howard. "You have to handle the rigors of travel and the games, and of course the competition level goes up and up. As a goalkeeper at this level, it's kind of like a theater production. You have to act like you've been there, even if you haven't. Fake it a little bit until you do.
"For me, everyone is a good shot stopper. It's kind of [overstated]. You get to this level and that people say, 'Well this guy is a good shot stopper.' Well, you wouldn't be here if you weren't. All the nuances of goalkeeping you have to have at a very high level. Here it's about being mentally strong."
That mental strength has carried Howard through a difficult 2017, one that involved a recovery from offseason groin surgery. He recovered in time to reclaim his spot in the starting lineup for the two World Cup qualifiers in March; he also got back in goal for the first June qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago before making way for Brad Guzan against Mexico.
Back then, Arena indicated that the turnaround between matches was a little too quick to play Howard in both matches, but Howard insists he's fully recovered now.
"Two days in between [matches] was obviously a quick recovery," he said. "But I feel good. I've obviously tapered all of my off-the-field treatments so that I can be fit and ready. I feel strong, so that part is good."
Howard's recovery has coincided with that of the national team. The beginning of the year saw a fair amount of anxiety surrounding the side after it dropped the first two games of the final round of World Cup qualifying back in November. But eight points in four qualifying games has allowed the U.S. to exhale a bit.
"I think we've [done] what we were asked to do," said Howard. "In each qualification period we got together, we needed to get a minimum of four points and we did that. We've gotten through the group stages of the Gold Cup; two wins and a draw, I think everyone would have taken that.
"The vibe is good, but every time you change managers that's what happens. It becomes a renewed sense of urgency, that's obviously important for any team. I think we have that. Obviously Bruce has come in and instilled that in us, and he's got that take-no-prisoners attitude, particularly on the training ground. You know what you have to do in order to impress him."
Now a Gold Cup quarterfinal beckons. Howard noted he's expecting a pro-El Salvador crowd -- "they always draw well on the East Coast" -- but he also likes what he sees from this current incarnation of the U.S. team.
"The vibe in the group is good, it's a young group that is and hungry and eager," he said. "Exactly what you would expect."
Even under some odd circumstances as six new players arrive at camp ready to play.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.