In his nearly two years as manager of the U.S. national team, Jurgen Klinsmann has been anything but averse to change. Before Friday's World Cup qualifier in Jamaica, Klinsmann had not started the same lineup in two successive games during his now 26-match tenure. He has repeatedly shown that individuals are subjugated to the bigger cause.
Klinsmann's unofficial excommunication of the country's all-time leading scorer, Landon Donovan, has gotten the lion's share of media and fan attention, but Donovan isn't alone in feeling the wrath of Klinsmann's detachment. Last fall, lead striker Jozy Altidore was left off the roster for the team's final two semifinal qualifiers despite being in the midst of a breakout season at his club, AZ Alkmaar. The morning of the opening match of this year's Hexagonal in Honduras, team captain Carlos Bocanegra was dropped to the bench. He's not even on the roster for this series of June matches.
As he continues the transition of the national team into the next generation of talent while trying to peak for next summer's World Cup, Klinsmann has repeatedly displayed the confidence to make hard decisions for the betterment of the team. That is, except for goalkeeper, where he remains staunchly -- and some would argue blindly -- loyal to Tim Howard.
Howard took over as the U.S.' full-time starter in 2007, paralleling his run at Everton. Counting his time at Manchester United, Howard has been playing in one of the world's best leagues for a decade. Between Howard's quality and the first dearth of U.S. goalkeepers in the program's modern era, his place in the starting XI was unassailable for years. The budding question, though, as the U.S. enters tonight's home qualifier against Panama looking to push closer to a seventh consecutive World Cup finals appearance, is whether his stronghold on the position should continue.
Howard, who has relied on elite athleticism and reflexes as his primary strengths, is now 34 and not the same goalkeeper he was a year or two ago. A thorough review of his U.S. performances would actually show that Howard has been on a downward trend since 2009, when he was largely irrelevant to the success of the U.S.' qualification efforts.
In the 2010 World Cup, Howard injured his ribs in the first match against England (a game in which he played very well and helped the U.S. steal a point) and was mostly ineffective for the rest of the tournament. He was one of the prime culprits in the capitulation to arch rival Mexico in the 2011 Gold Cup final, and he hasn't been great at any point in the current qualifying campaign, either. The late goal from Jamaica last Friday, on which Howard stayed rooted to his line and watched a long free kick get headed in, was the latest "it's not really his fault, but should he have done better?" goal Howard has conceded. There has been a growing number of them.
Howard has obviously been a quality player overall for the U.S. and has had his share of great moments -- the 2008 friendly against Argentina, the 2009 Confederations Cup stunner over Spain and the England match in the 2010 World Cup stand out. But the last of those performances was three years ago, and for the first time in Howard's tenure, there's a viable alternative in Aston Villa's Brad Guzan. Guzan was named Villa's player of the year, and he deputized well in February when Howard was injured, helping the U.S. claim a win over Costa Rica and a 0-0 draw at Mexico.
Yet, based on public comments from Klinsmann over the last few months, it doesn't appear a change in goal is anywhere near the manager's decision process. In announcing the roster for this month's matches, Klinsmann reiterated that Howard "deserves to be in the top five in the world." In April, Klinsmann said that Howard is No. 1 undoubtedly and that "in the rankings, there's no doubt about it. there's Tim Howard at No. 1, Brad Guzan at No. 2."
Howard captained the U.S. as recently as the opening match of this final qualifying round. Clint Dempsey has since taken over as captain, but Howard remains the backup option.
Media reports over the years have defined Howard as an important leader in the U.S. locker room, and the goalkeeper position is not one where you like to have instability, so change doesn't come lightly. It's also quite possible, given Howard's age and club career in England, that he would opt out completely if Klinsmann anointed Guzan as the team's new No. 1. Maybe he'd return if Guzan was injured, but there's no point for a 34-year-old former starter to fly to North and Central America multiple times to sit on the bench. So any decision involving Howard has to also include who the new No. 2 would be behind Guzan, and whether that overall equation warrants the risk of losing Howard.
With the U.S.' strong early position in the Hexagonal, though, one eye should already be turning toward next summer, when the merits of hiring of Klinsmann will be fully deliberated. The problem is, there may never be an easy time to make a switch, even if Klinsmann wanted to, which it appears he doesn't.
Barring injury, Howard will be in goal tonight and next Tuesday. He'll also almost certainly be the goalkeeper when the U.S. is at Costa Rica and then home to Mexico in September. Two weeks into the club season won't be enough time for Guzan to further convince. The final two qualifiers are in October, but if the U.S. hasn't clinched a spot yet, it's hard to imagine Klinsmann changing course for those. Maybe Guzan gets the final match in Panama if it doesn't matter. After that, there's only one international friendly date on the spring calendar (March 5) before the end of the club season and the camps and warm-up games that lead into the World Cup.
The U.S. certainly will have bigger questions entering the World Cup than whether Tim Howard is past his prime, but Klinsmann appears to have locked himself into a crucial decision a year ahead of time despite mounting evidence that there should be a full-fledged competition for the job. That goes against Klinsmann's established philosophy when it comes to field players, and it may be a decision that ultimately costs him next summer on the biggest stage.