Veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard was at his outstanding, acrobatic best on 15 August, when USA carved out a piece of history by beating arch-rivals Mexico at the Estadio Azteca for the first time in history. The 33-year-old, who has 78 caps for his country, calls the 1-0 win “one of the biggest moments of my career."
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Everton's former Manchester United man talks about that ground-breaking day in Mexico City, the state of the simmering USA-Mexico rivalry, upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers against Jamaica, and his firm belief that the Toffees can qualify for Europe this season.
FIFA.com: Tim, what does that 1-0 friendly win at the Azteca mean to you and to US soccer?
Tim Howard: It means everything to us. We’d never done it before and over the years we were all hoping that we would be the group of players to finally get over the hump. To be a part of the generation that finally won at the Azteca fills us with so much pride. It’s definitely one of the biggest moments of my career.
How intimidating is it stepping out at the Azteca?
You're down in this long, dark tunnel, underground. It’s cold. You can’t see where you’re walking and it’s completely disorienting. Then you emerge out into the brightest, most intimidating scene, this stage where the stands go straight up into the sky and you’re hit with the noise of the crowd,100,000-strong. It’s so much to take in.
And that’s all before the kick-off…
Yeah, then you have to deal with the altitude, which is a big deal. And you’re usually playing against a team that keeps the ball and makes you chase them around. And as the years pass, and they never lose there, you’re just piling up the psychological factors. So, first you have to deal with the physical stuff and then the psychological stuff. That’s a lot stacked on your plate as a visiting team.
There are banners painted on the walls of the Azteca tunnel documenting individual countries' respective records there against Mexico. How does it feel to know they will have to change the USA's?
Those banners and statistics are real; they’re down there. The pride I felt was immense when I walked past the USA banner, where it said ‘zero wins', and I knew they would have to change it.
Is the achievement even more special because there were a number of regulars out of the team, with some players also playing out of position?
Everyone who was out there on the night for us took the opportunity to shine – veterans like myself and the young guys. We got there late, there was no way to properly adjust to the altitude. We had guys playing out of position, and new guys out there too.
You're down in this long, dark tunnel, underground. It’s cold. You can’t see where you’re walking and it’s completely disorienting. Then you emerge out into the brightest, most intimidating scene.
There was a lot of hype around the game, as Mexico had just won Olympic Gold for the first time. Did that make any difference?
Absolutely, they just won the gold in London and there was a lot of talk surrounding our game. Almost none of that talk was about us…which is fine, it’s normal. That kind of made it more special. We banded together. It was about grit and determination. We had a lot of excuses to lose that game – it was only a friendly and there were a lot of things going on – but we overcame it.
How would you describe the state of the USA-Mexico rivalry? Who’s on top at the moment: El Tri or the Stars and Stripes?
It shifts, and it depends on who you ask. It also depends on what you look at. Mexico won the Olympics and they've been getting good results recently, so down there they think they’re on top. We finished top of the last World Cup qualifying group, so there’s reason to think we are.
Can you talk about the nature of the rivalry a bit? It seems extremely heated.
It’s a healthy rivalry. We both want to be the best and we push each other. We both want to be in the final round of qualifying. The fact that we won at the Azteca means we did our part to open the debate again. In a way, we broke the momentum that was going Mexico's way with the Olympics. We’re back in the argument again. That’s what’s great about when we play.
Your USA coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, said he wishes he could play Mexico everyday. What do you think he means by that?
Both countries need each other to move forward. It’s not a hatred, it’s a mutual respect. We grow as they grow. We kick each other so hard and play so hard against each other because it matters so much. That’s what makes a great rivalry.
Can you talk about the Klinsmann era so far? What’s changed? What’s stayed the same?
Klinsmann is a progressive thinker. He implements a lot of different ideas, and they are all aimed at making each player better on the field and making us all better as a team. His ideas aren’t just football ideas, either, they’re about lifestyle and attitude.
Is everyone on board with his ideas?
When you introduce a lot of new ideas to a large group of people, it’s hard to get everyone to buy into everything. That said, we’ve got a great bunch of guys who want to win and work extremely hard to implement his ideas on the pitch.
Klinsmann seems to have a real infectious enthusiasm. Does this rub off on the team?
He has a real zest for life, and a zest for soccer. He’s a positive thinker. Part of that might be trickling down to us, and maybe it’s not a coincidence that we beat Mexico at the Azteca for the first time with him as our coach.
What is he like on a practical level, in training sessions and in the technical area?
He’s hard on us as a coach, but when we make a mistake he says, ‘try it again,’ when a lot of other coaches might shut you down and tell you not to take chances. He encourages us and wants us to enjoy our football and try new things.
You have a pair of FIFA World Cup qualifiers coming up this weekend and next week against Jamaica. What do you expect?
Jamaica is a tough team and it’s tough to play them at ‘The Office’ in Kingston. We’re hoping we can keep up the momentum from the Azteca win and get one there, where we rarely win.
Jamaica have gotten better in the last few years. What makes them dangerous?
They’re a lot like us. In fact, Jamaica, Canada and the USA are very similar and match up very tightly. They have strong, athletic players and a few guys who know how to move the ball around. When you play a team that cancels you out like that, you need to get the tactics right. We need to find a rhythm and dominate the areas we can dominate on the field.
He implements a lot of ideas, and they are all aimed at making each player better on the field and making us all better as a team. His ideas aren’t just football ideas, either, they’re about lifestyle and attitude.
You started your qualifying campaign with a tougher-than-expected 3-1 win over Antigua and Barbuda and then a draw on the road in Guatemala. How do you feel about the start?
At the end of the day we got a pretty comfortable win against Antigua and Barbuda. They did pose us some problems with their speed and physicality, but we handled it. I have my concerns about the Guatemala game, though. We took an early lead, and we needed to finish it off. If you leave a team hanging around, they might just punish you. And that’s what happened down there. We need to be more resilient at both ends of the field, but overall I would say that our start is ok.
Your club, Everton, have started at a canter in the English Premier League, with two wins from three games. What’s the reason for this hot start?
The spirit at the club is incredible. There are no egos and the guys all fight for each other. When you see Manchester United at home as your first game of the season you think, ‘oh my God', but I think we dominated our opener against them and deserved the win.
Manager David Moyes has improved the squad consistently in recent years. What’s his secret?
Moyes has a really good recipe for success. He doesn’t just bring in every good player available. He brings in guys that can play two positions, who will buy into the Everton way, and then he guides them along. He’s an incredible motivator and he gets better at it every year.
Can you define what success for Everton would look like this year?
We want to finish in the top six and get into Europe. The Champions League might be a stretch because we can’t spend the same kind of money as the five or six teams in England who can, but on the pitch I think we have what it takes. And getting back to Wembley Stadium would be great too (Everton have been there three times since 2009 for two FA Cup semi-finals and the 2009 FA Cup Final ).