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 By Sam Borden

Tim Howard has 'no doubt' U.S. will book World Cup 2018 spot

Despite recent struggles in the Hex, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard is confident ahead of the crucial upcoming WCQ matches.
U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard reflects on the nationwide anthem protests ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifier against Panama.
The FC panel weigh in on who Bruce Arena should start in goal against Panama.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Tim Howard did not hesitate, not even for a second.

While anxiety abounds for fans of the United States men's national team ahead of its critical World Cup qualifying match against Panama on Friday night, Howard -- the Americans' long-time goalkeeper -- has refused to even consider the possibility that the U.S. might miss out on its first World Cup since 1986.

In an interview Wednesday, Howard said he has "no doubt" that the United States will be in Russia for next summer's World Cup, and added that he believed a pair of victories over Panama and Trinidad in the final two qualifiers would serve to smooth out this bumpy qualification process.

"Ultimately, when we punch our ticket to Russia? None of this will matter," Howard said. Still, even Howard would acknowledge this has been an unusual path for the Americans to take.

Fans of the United States -- and perhaps even some of the players -- grew accustomed to the relative ease with which the team has qualified for the World Cup over the past few cycles, making the fits and starts of this run all the more pronounced. The loss to Mexico at home. The blowout defeat in Costa Rica. Jurgen Klinsmann's firing as head coach. The poor performance against Costa Rica in New Jersey. The miracle finish to salvage a point in Honduras.

All of it has to led to this week, where the United States must beat both Panama and Trinidad to ensure a place at the World Cup. Other combinations of results could also achieve the same goal -- and there is the additional chance the U.S. ends up in an intercontinental playoff for a berth -- but the Americans are viewing this situation as one in which three points from each game is the only reasonable goal.

"We've been spoiled over the last 25 years because we have been incredibly dominant in the region," said Howard, adding that "nothing happened" in particular to make this process harder other than the Americans underachieving and their opponents improving. "We have no divine right to win football games. We've had a pretty stable history but there are times when a change needs to come and a fire needs to be lit under a team."

Tim Howard says there is no doubt in his mind that the U.S. will qualify for the World Cup.

Howard says he expects to see urgency from the Americans on Friday night as the United States seeks to press Panama and control the flow of the game. While energy is important, though, so too is precision: The Americans have been guilty of sloppiness at both ends of the field during their inconsistent run of form. That, in combination with the disappointing results, has led to some intense criticism of the players.

Perhaps most notably, Alexi Lalas, the former national team defender who is now a television commentator, targeted several players (including Howard) in a recent screed in which he labeled the players "underperforming, tattooed millionaires" among other things.

Howard is unfazed by the criticisms of the team -- "you lose a game and the wolves come out, that's all" -- but said, when asked specifically about Lalas' comments, "I love my tattoos."

"As far as Alexi is concerned, if he wants to speak to me personally, he can -- [but] he probably won't," Howard said. "Other than that, it is a waste of time to even speak his name."

Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.

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