COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It has been more than 10 years since Tim Howard played in the U.S.-Mexico rivalry for the first time on the senior national team. He was 24, and there were nearly 70,000 fans in Houston, and on May 8, 2003, in the first game between the two teams since the U.S.'s famous 2002 World Cup victory, the 0-0 tie that night didn't diminish the wonder Howard felt at experiencing an occasion that meant so much to so many people.
"I remember Manchester United was there watching [me], which made it all that much more daunting," Howard, now 34, recalled here ahead of Tuesday's World Cup qualifying showdown with Mexico (8 p.m. ET, ESPN, Unimas). "But I think there's more pressure on us now. When you're a kid and you just go into it and you're wanting to be part of the rivalry, and it's cool and it's fun. There's nothing much cool or fun going into these games anymore. There's a lot of pressure, you know. The fun part is afterward."
How does Howard explain the U.S.-Mexico rivalry to people in Liverpool? "Everton-Liverpool, it's as simple as that," he said with a smile. "When it comes to regional rivalries in the world, I don't think I'm speaking out of turn when I say this is right up there. The passion is incredible."
In his sterling career with the U.S., Howard has played against Mexico nine times: four U.S. wins, three ties and two losses. He was magnificent the last time these teams met each other in Columbus, a 2-0 U.S. win in 2009, and the same was the case in August 2012 when the U.S. won for the first time ever in Mexico, a 1-0 friendly victory. Ask him which U.S.-Mexico game is his favorite, and he mentions two.
"The Gold Cup final in 2007 in Chicago [a 2-1 U.S. win], because of the way we came from behind and won," he said. "But also beating them at their place last year was special, because it's never been done before."
The U.S. had won 12 games in a row -- with Howard in goal for five of them -- until Friday's 3-1 loss at Costa Rica. It was one game. And Howard said the team went back and looked at the goals the U.S. conceded on the video replay.
"When we went back and looked over the goals, they're all really little things," Howard said. "They didn't carve us open. We made some mistakes tactically that allowed them to do that. So we feel like we can correct those little things ... just keeping our lines tighter front to back, side to side, not letting them penetrate us so easily. It felt like the other night ... as soon as the ball turned over they were into our back line. And you need to make teams work for that. So that's one of the things we're working on."
Perhaps Howard himself could have come off his line a bit sooner on Costa Rica's second goal (off a cross into the box) and third goal (a breakaway after a booming clearance from the Costa Rican end, with the U.S. pushed forward). But any talk that Howard is in danger of losing his starting job to Brad Guzan -- and there has been some this week -- seems a little premature to me.
First off, I don't think the possibility is high: coach Jurgen Klinsmann reiterated again on Monday that Howard is one of the U.S. team's top leaders, and Klinsmann has said repeatedly that he views Howard as one of the premier goalkeepers in the world. What's more, Howard is still the starter at Everton, where he's had clean sheets in two of three league games so far.
What I would say is this: It's good to have competition at every position, including goalkeeper, and the biggest change over the past year is that Guzan, after playing little for four years in England, has been terrific as the full-time starter at Aston Villa -- and also did well filling in for an injured Howard in March qualifiers for the U.S.
When I asked Howard on Monday if Guzan's performance was putting him under more pressure for the U.S. job, he said: "No, because I feel like I've been terrific [too], you know. I think if you look back over the last 12 months and you look at the number of games I've played and the stats, I don't need to say any more."
If Howard was put off by my question -- and I think he was -- it wasn't intended with any disrespect. Howard is a competitor, though, and he's fiercely proud. But after six years in which Howard was the No. 1 keeper by a country mile, he's getting more of a push these days by Guzan, a development which Klinsmann will no doubt welcome as beneficial for the state of the team. Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel had their own competition for years, and it tended to bring out good performances by both of them.
Soccer can be a ruthless business. From his home in England, Howard has observed the saga of Iker Casillas, viewed by many as the world's top goalkeeper, who has played little for Real Madrid in recent months (under two different managers) and is in danger of losing his starting job with the Spanish national team.
"He's a guy who I look up to, and I turn on the TV every weekend to watch [him], you know, because we get every Real Madrid and Barcelona game in England," Howard said. "So it's incredible, really. I'm not sure why. I guess there's always reasons. But you're talking about the best goalkeeper in the world, hands down."
Another top keeper, England's Joe Hart, has been feeling some heat recently too after performances for Manchester City. Howard knows: Scrutiny is part of the job. Sometimes it's warranted. Sometimes it's knee-jerk nonsense. And after making 92 U.S. appearances over the years, Howard is well aware that he can change the conversation with another big-time game against Mexico on Tuesday.