Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard believes next year's FIFA World Cup™ group stages in South Africa will be a stroll compared to the pool the USA face at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009. The US, representing North and Central America and the Caribbean as CONCACAF victors, take on world champions Italy, South American kingpins Brazil and African Cup of Nations winners Egypt in the space of seven days starting tomorrow. And Howard is hoping he can help the Americans return to South Africa in 2010, when he cannot envisage a tougher group than that.
"It can't get any better for us," said Howard. "A year before the World Cup we're getting a chance to play in South Africa with a schedule I'm guessing that's going to be similar to the World Cup with games three days apart, minimal recovery and lots of internal travel.
"I don't think the World Cup will come and we'll get a harder group. And if it is, it's a conspiracy. ," he said. "So that part is really exciting for us, as well as just being able to get together and work on a bunch of things and not just be in such a rush."
Howard, 30, won his 39th cap for the US in last Saturday's 2-1 win over Honduras at Chicago's Soldier Field following a 3-1 loss in Costa Rica, and he believes his side's strength of character makes them more than a match for the world's top teams.
"We all get along really well and we're not afraid to push each other and challenge each other," Howard said. "There are times when we're not the better footballing team, but there's a strength about us in our numbers and that, to me, is the most encouraging thing - our resilience to bounce back from our losses or even bad performances."
Howard highlights what he sees as a perfect example of that resilience, when his country regrouped following away defeats to England and Spain in 2008 to hold Argentina to a goalless draw back on home soil.
"You look back at last summer when we had two difficult games on the road and we came back and put up a really good fight against Argentina," he said.
"I can tell you we're not a better team than Argentina, I hope that's not a secret, but that night we fought and we battled and we weren't going to be trampled on," said Howard. "That's the best thing about this team."
Howard joined Everton initially on loan from Manchester United in 2006 before making the move permanent in 2007, and last month signed a contract extension to keep him at Goodison Park.
"I signed for five years on the Thursday before we went down to Wembley for the FA Cup final, so it was good to have that taken care of before the summer. It's easier that way," he said.
On course for 2010
In the meantime, Howard is satisfied not just with his club situation, but also with the USA's FIFA World Cup qualifying. They lie second in the CONCACAF final round group at the halfway stage, five points clear of third place, with the top three progressing to the finals.
"We're in pretty good shape in second and I think if you could have told us that before the final round we'd have taken it. I'm a firm believer that it's just about performances. If you string enough good performances together you'll get good results," said Howard.
"To be honest, I don't think our performances over the first five games have been great. They've been okay, good in spots, but I think the positives of that are that we're still second and we haven't even reached our potential yet."