By Charles Boehm - WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 6, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Amid wins and losses, new coaching regimes, and any number of other changes to the US National Team over the past half-decade, goalkeeper Tim Howard remains a constant. A remarkably consistent touchstone for his team, Howard is one of coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s few unquestioned starters at this early stage in 2014 World Cup qualifying.
Last week Howard carved out some time for a conversation with USSoccerPlayers.com about the current mindset of the National Team, Klinsmann’s effect on the squad, and the upcoming qualifiers against Jamaica.
What’s your take on the general outlook among the team going into these qualifiers against Jamaica?
I think we feel confident. After that win that we had at Azteca, it boosted everyone’s confidence. Not that we were lacking in it, by any means, because I think we’d been playing well. But when you’re at the top level, which we are, you take any little incentive you can. So going into these games that, at the moment, mean everything, because Jamaica and ourselves top the group with four points… it’s important that we get some points in the bag. I think the positive is that we play away from home first. Away from home always seems to be that much tougher, and if we can get some points there, that will boost us even further.
There’s a bit of concern among fans given the injuries to Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan, and Clint Dempsey’s recent lack of action. Is that a concern for the team as well?
I go back to the game against Mexico. We didn’t have a ton of our players and we still got the victory. Being able to do that allows us to go in - even though you always want your best players playing - it kind of allows us to go into that environment and say, ‘Look, even though we don’t have them, we’ve got guys that who can step up, guys who are capable of performing.’
Coach Klinsmann talked about a proactive mentality, grabbing control of games and playing with style, but it seems as if you guys have been at your best – like in the win at Azteca – when sitting deeper and playing the way we’ve been more accustomed to for the past few years.
I think you’re right. But a lot more gets made of tactics at times. Stylistically he does have a way of wanting us to play, and I think we’ve shown, more often than not, that we try and implement that. Having said that, let’s look at the human side of things. When your back’s against the wall, in any walk of life, and you’re fearful and you have something to protect, what do you naturally do? You back up, you put your hands up and you protect it.
So sometimes we talk about tactics, and other times it’s just human nature. We go to Azteca, they’re on top of the game, their passing and their movement is putting us under pressure, so naturally we’re not going to spread ourselves out. We’re going to get into a shell and defend what we have. So every now and then, whether it’s for 90 minutes, or for 30 minutes of a certain game, yeah, you’re going to have to defend and counter. I don’t think that’s always the game plan, I think there’s a human element to it that plays a part.
It seems that Klinsmann’s hiring and subsequent public statements have raised the bar among fans, perhaps unfairly so. What should we really expect from this team, at least through the current round of qualifying?
Well, the hope is that we play a more attractive brand of soccer, more often, and win some of those really difficult away games. But it’s not always as easy as that. As I said, when you’re away from home and you’re put under a lot of pressure, there’s very few teams that can go out and dominate a game, away from home, under pressure.
Just look at any African qualification, Asian qualification, European qualification – there’s so many games where the bigger team goes away from home and struggles. Maybe they win the game, but they still struggled. And that’s just part of the makeup of home and away – that’s why you play home and away. Very few big teams cruise through a group. Every now and again it happens, yes. But you always see a couple of upsets because of the nature of how difficult it is to travel away from home.
I think the expectations that the fans should have are the same as the expectations that we have, and that is, we’re trying to grow, we’re trying to get better. Having said that, we’re in a pretty good place at the moment. We can keep building on that, and get through this round of qualifying, hopefully in style, and get a few more wins under our belt. That puts in the Hexagonal, really, on a high.
Can you talk about the potential center back pairings in front of you? Cameron and Edu were excellent against Mexico, while the team’s longtime captain Carlos Bocanegra has returned to the field.
Yeah, that’s the dilemma, and that’s what good players do, they give a coach selection problems. Listen, I was just so proud of Geoff and Mo for the effort they put in, in a difficult environment. They had a lot of excuses to use if they wanted them, and they didn’t use them, they stepped up the challenge. They rose to it and they were fantastic. Having said that, I don’t know. The one thing we did learn is, we have some capable center backs. I think it’s going to be hard to displace the captain, because he’s been fantastic, he’s been a rock, he’s been a leader. Those are the type of guys you need to have on the field. But we’ve shown we have some consistency in the back, and I think that’s important.
But along with the shuffling, you have to have a level of trust, on and off the field, and I think that’s what makes a good back unit. And we all really trust each other, we get along well and we all together take information on board, whether it’s criticism or praise or what have you. We keep each other level and grounded, and it seems to pay off on the field.
What are your memories and impressions of Jamaica as a team, and that experience of visiting Kingston and playing at “The Office”?
Jamaica always gives us a good game, because like Canada as well, their players are built in the same mold as ourselves: strong, powerful, good runners, good in the air, a couple players who are really technical and like to get on the ball. That’s the blueprint for the United States, Canada –we’re very much all cut in that mold so when you play against those teams, a lot of the positives cancel each other out because we are so similar.
So it’s just going to be about our tactical discipline, and in the right moments, trying to stamp our authority on the game. You go away from home, you can’t do that for 90 minutes, but I think there’s going to be opportunities in Kingston where we’ll have some of the ball. We need to make the ball work for us, and make it count. Put them under some pressure. It’s no different than any other game, but particularly when you go on the road in a hostile environment, it takes a little bit more concentration to be clued into that game plan.
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