Tim Howard's rise to the top tier of club and international football has been nothing short of meteoric. Plucked from the semi-pro leagues as a teenager in New Jersey, the spring-heeled keeper became an icon in New York with the MetroStars (now Red Bulls), went on to succeed Fabien Barthez at Manchester United before settling in at Everton.
Now 29, the undisputed USA No1 sits down for an exclusive chat with FIFA.com ahead of a decisive qualifier with Cuba on Saturday. Touching on the Americans' perfect start to qualifying and the Toffees' troubled start to the current campaign, Howard is ever hopeful, never satisfied and wise beyond his years.
FIFA.com: The US is top of their group with three wins from three games. Obviously the results are right, but how do you feel about the way the team's been playing?
Tim Howard: You can't complain about results like those, but all coaches and players are perfectionists and we know we can always play better. After each game, we sit down and dissect it and find ways to improve. There is no perfect game; you can always make improvements.
How hard is it to get focused and ready to play with only a week of preparation, and with everyone jetting in from their clubs?
Obviously the longer we're together, the better it is. The easiest answer is that it's hard to get yourself prepared in such a short space of time. The responsibility falls on the coaches, but also on the players. We, as players, need to forget about everything that's going on at our clubs and leave our English, French, Spanish mindsets behind, and come and perform for our national team. This team gets along really well on and off the field, so that helps too.
Can you comment on the defence's performance so far? You have not conceded a single goal.
As a goalkeeper, you're only as good as the defenders in front of you. Carlos (Bocanegra) and Oguchi (Onyewu) have been amazing in the games so far, but so have our midfielders and forwards. We've been defending in packs and pushing the other teams into positions they don't want to be in. We've been clicking defensively and doing well to not let our opponents get comfortable.
Clicking, that's a pretty good way to describe the last performance, a 3-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago in Chicago on 10 September.
It was our best game so far. It's the perfect example of keeping a team off-balance and away from the danger zones.
A win against Cuba in DC this weekend would put you in the final round of North, Central American and Caribbean qualifying. Do you enter a game like that with a special mindset?
We'll be playing Cuba for a second time now, and at home, so the onus is on us to take the game to them. We know what's at stake, but at the same time we can't get consumed with it. We just need to dictate the pace of the game and aim for the three points.
From the days of Tony Meola, through to Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller, the USA always seems to produce strong goalkeepers. Why do you think this is?
(Laughs) I get this question a lot, and I don't really know the answer. We have managed to do well exporting players in the goalkeeper position. I think at the end of the day it's about producing good athletes in America, and good athletes tend to become good goalkeepers.
Being a fellow Jersey boy, was your boyhood idol Tony Meola?
I didn't really have a soccer idol growing up. It wasn't like it is today, where you have soccer on TV all the time. I had to take my sporting heroes from other sports.
It's been a long road for you, from semi-pro ball in New Jersey, to (MLS) to Manchester United and now Everton, it's all happened pretty fast. Do you now look back and put it all in perspective?
While it was all happening, it was hard to really focus on what was going on. It was all I could do to keep my head above water and survive and try to improve enough to keep my place. Things just kept happening year after year. But now, in my third season with Everton, I can look back on just what a wild ride it's been. And to be honest, I am pleased with where I am right now, with my development and the level I'm at.
Speaking of Everton, it's been a rough start, eliminated from the UEFA and League Cups and without a home win. All this after two years of sustained success.
It's true, we're having a rough start to the season. In the top leagues in the world, you have to get off to a good start, and we haven't. Now we need to fight our way out of it and we have the guys to do it. We all understand that we have no divine right to finish fourth or fifth, and we are going to have to sort out a way to get out of this. But we have the spirit, as we've shown in the last two seasons.
Lastly, you've not had the chance to be the No1 at a FIFA World Cup. Do you let yourself look that far ahead, maybe to South Africa?
Inevitably, yes. I think about it just like you write about it. But there are a lot of things between now and that opportunity. First, we have to qualify; I have to keep my spot. Nobody in our team is untouchable; no one has a right to their spot. And that's a great thing. Playing in a World Cup is a great goal of mine and it's something I'm working toward, but it's important to keep your feet on the ground.
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