Tim Howard is the USA’s rock. An athletic and reliable goalkeeper who helped Everton to a fifth-place finish in the English Premier League this term, he recently marked his 100th cap and is preparing for his third FIFA World Cup™ finals. The most successful keeper in American history, Howard is just one of five in the Brazil-bound Stars and Stripes squad with any experience playing at this highest of levels. In the midst of a hectic final build-up to the showpiece, the 35-year-old veteran talked to FIFA.com about breaking a long-held record owned by a dear friend, how the Americans want to “break out of the cage” against Ghana and why, despite all his chatter, he prefers to lead by example.
FIFA.com: You guys are all over television and in the big papers and magazines back in the States. Is it a distraction?
Tim Howard: The buzz has been big, so we just tried to get every last bit of media, interviews and press days out of the way. We’re ready and eager to be down in Sao Paulo. Then we can start to really dial in. The goal is to put our heads down and break out of the cage in the first game against Ghana.
You’ve done this all before. Is it difficult to make the transition from an intense season in England and focus on a World Cup?
All of us push ourselves hard the whole year, and adding the World Cup into it is just a matter of extending that push. It’s a transition you need to make. If you finished your season well you can get out onto the training pitch with your country and keep that form going. You can use it as a springboard for the World Cup.
And if you’re having a hard time and your form isn’t where you want it to be?
If you didn’t finish your club season in high gear, the World Cup can be a get-out-jail-free card. There are new fields, new atmospheres. You’ve got new coaches and new teammates. New faces. It’s a new lease on life, and you can put the rest of the stuff behind you.
Jurgen Klinsmann picked an inexperienced team. As one of only five players in the squad who’s played at a World Cup, do you take on an extra leadership role?
Yeah, but I like to lead with actions and not words. I show up every day. I go about my business with a good attitude and intensity. When the young guys see this kind of thing, they see the way it’s done and they use it as an example.
What are some other important elements of being a team leader?
You can’t let guys off the hook in training. I push them if I see they’re not doing things the right way, or if they’re taking their foot off the gas. You need to make sure the tempo is high in training. A leader isn’t always the guy screaming loudest. It’s the guy doing things the right way when you look around. He’s the guy setting an example. The guy always pushing himself.
I don’t doubt that you lead by example, but we can all see that you like to make yourself heard on the pitch…
[Laughs] Yelling my head off never gets old. It’s a thing I do on the field, plain and simple. I like to be in control and communicate with the defenders in front of me.
The likely American backline in Brazil will have little-to-no World Cup experience. How do you help in forming the defence into a unit?
I try to stay on my defenders to make sure they know where to be. That’s where the talk comes in. They need to understand their roles and it’s never going to be my fault that they don’t know. I’m going to talk all the time. Communication is key at the back.
You’ve had three send-off friendlies, a trio of wins over Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria. What do these results mean?
The friendlies have had their good and bad. It’s always good to win. But there are lessons to learn and we need to focus on them. The reason we play these games is to see what’s going wrong, so we don’t ignore the problems. If we’re not there yet, we need to know it now so that when the Ghana game gets here we’ve got everything clicking.
You’ve known your opponents in Brazil for over six months now. Ghana, Portugal and Germany – in that order. Is it different now that the Ghana game is days away?
There’s a moment of initial buzz when you find out at the draw. But it wears off. Then you focus on yourself as a team and building. Now the attention turns back to Ghana. Ghana becomes the only thing we think about, the practical things: knowing their tactics, and their dangerous players. How they like to play. We’ve got a few days between now and the 16th (June) and the focus is only Ghana from now until then.
People talk a lot about winning that first game, but Spain lost their opener in South Africa four years ago and they won the whole thing. How important is it really?
It’s crucial for any team to get something from that first game. The importance can’t be overstated. You win that game and you get a feel-good factor working; get some momentum. We don’t want to play catch-up in the group stages. We don’t want to be biting our fingernails in that third game and hoping some other team can do us a favour.
And the other teams [Portugal and Germany]. Do they enter into your thinking at the moment, or do they exist only on the horizon?
There are tough teams waiting for us after Ghana, but we simply can’t think about them until they’re right in front of us. That’s the way.
There were some surprise inclusions in the US team, like Julian Green and Timmy Chandler, and some well-publicised omissions like your long-time team-mate Landon Donovan. How long does it take before the selected guys begin the work of becoming one team?
It’s a quicker process than you might think. We’re all professionals and we all know the way things go. Some guys make it and some don’t. All the guys in this camp know each other. It’s just something to deal with it. It’s part of being a pro.
You recently earned your 54th win for the US, one better than previous best Kasey Keller. You were his No2 at Germany 2006. How did his mentorship help you become the keeper you are today?
I backed him up for four or five years, and while he gave me good advice, it was the things he didn’t tell me that had the most impact. I observed him in the big moments, during the big games. I watched the way he handled himself in the hotel, with the media, with everyone. I am my own guy, but as a professional I modeled myself on him. In goalkeeping terms, he’s Superman.
Was there one lesson you remember best?
It was his calm. In those biggest moments, the man always stayed cool.
Back to the here-and-now. Facing a group containing Portugal, Germany and Ghana – what many are calling the ‘group of death’ – what does success look like?
Defining success isn’t easy. My brain works like this: anything less then winning the World Cup leaves room to doubt what you did. If you don’t win the whole thing, then it’s hard to say it was a success. But that’s a high bar, so we’ll start by trying to get out of the group.