JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Goalkeeper Tim Howard is set to become the 15th U.S. player to make 100 national team appearances when the U.S. meets Nigeria here on Saturday in the teams’ last friendly before the World Cup (6 p.m. ET, ESPN, Unimás). And as Howard said on Friday, the emotions he’ll have are less about one game than about the 99 that preceded them.
“It’s special, and that’s probably an understatement,” said Howard, 35, who’s still very much at the top of his game these days. “It’s a proud moment for myself and my family. I’m excited that it’s happening now during this process, because it’s a great time for the team. Everyone is excited for the World Cup.”
When you hit 100 caps, it’s natural to look back at some of the big moments that came along the way. On Friday, Howard reminisced about his first U.S. game, a 1-0 win against Ecuador on March 11, 2002.
“I remember being very nervous, but also very excited,” he said. “That was the first step, a baby step. We won 1-0, Eddie Lewis scored, so it was good. Eddie Lewis scored, got my first cap, so I was happy. If I hadn’t gotten any more, I was happy with that. Birmingham, Alabama. Legion Field.”
Asked which of his U.S. games was his favorite, Howard didn’t hesitate: The 2-0 win over Spain in the semifinals of the 2009 Confederations Cup.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “We weren’t supposed to win that game. It was meant to be men among boys, and we shocked the world. Spain had been undefeated for 35 games, and we won to progress to a major final. That was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had after 90 minutes.”
Yet the sense of accomplishment that comes with reaching 100 caps isn’t just about the high moments. It’s also about persevering through the low points that come with every athlete’s career and having the tenacity to come back from them. It hasn’t always been easy for Howard: He got passed over in 2002 for the U.S. World Cup team when Bruce Arena gave the third goalkeeper spot to Tony Meola, and after being Kasey Keller’s back-up in 2006, Howard finally got to play in his first World Cup at age 31 in 2010.
“For anybody to reach 100 caps is an incredible achievement,” said Michael Bradley. “It certainly shows consistency and an ability to push yourself regardless of what’s going on. There’s injuries, there are runs in and out of form, there are things that come up. But for somebody to reach 100 caps playing for the U.S. national team shows you’ve been able to push yourself through all that.”
Saturday is an ideal occasion for Howard to commemorate reaching the century mark. There’s plenty of attention on the game, since it’s the last one before the World Cup, but while the result is important, the pressure is nowhere near what it will be against Ghana on June 16 in Natal. At the rate he’s going, Howard will blow past Keller’s 102 caps, the all-time record for a U.S. goalkeeper. And, by the time he’s done, Howard may well end up at the top of the list when it comes to the best U.S. goalkeepers of all time.
• Of the three U.S. pre-World Cup friendly opponents, only the Nigerians are also playing in the World Cup. The reigning African champions have perhaps the world’s most underrated national team coach (Stephen Keshi) and several recognizable names, including John Obi Mikel, Peter Odemwingie, Vincent Enyeama and Victor Moses.
I think the Super Eagles will be in a dogfight to advance in their World Cup group with Bosnia-Herzegovina to see who joins Argentina in the Round of 16.
“They have so much individual talent, they’re technically gifted and they’re always calm on the ball, not bothered by getting pressurized,” said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “But sometimes also a little bit overconfident with their technique, and hopefully we can utilize that on our end.”
• Klinsmann also tried to defuse some of the more notable quotes from Sam Borden’s terrific New York Times Magazine story that came out Thursday, which you should read in its entirety. In the first instance, Klinsmann expressed his exasperation with the U.S. sports star system.
“Kobe Bryant, for example—why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million?” Klinsmann asked in the piece. “Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?”
Pardon The Interruption’s Michael Wilbon responded to Klinsmann with an over-the-top TV rant telling Klinsmann to “get the hell out … of America.”
Klinsmann was asked about his Bryant quote on Friday, and he responded by saying: “There are people that try to take quotes out of context. I’m a big Kobe Bryant fan. When something like that is said, it’s said in the same way always: It’s great what you achieved until now, but you still have to always prove it today and tomorrow. So there’s absolutely nothing negative on Kobe, who I admire a lot and have watched many times.”
More important for the U.S. national team was Klinsmann’s quote in the Times on the upcoming World Cup: “We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament.”
My first reaction: Klinsmann is being realistic, but he probably wants to have that one back. The man who hired him, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, once told me one of the reasons he hired Klinsmann was so that he wouldn’t say the U.S. had no chance of winning a World Cup. On Friday, Klinsmann said this: “The realistic expectation is we want to get through the group, and then we’re going to hit one after another. We want to go as far as we can. But it’s also realistic to say we are not the favorites to win the World Cup.”
• Tim Howard isn’t the only guy getting to 100 caps this week. Some of us scribes keep track of how many USMNT games we’ve attended in person, and my friend Ives Galarcep—a Jersey guy like Howard—hits 100 here against Nigeria as well.
My 100th USMNT cap came last Sunday at USA-Turkey, and like Howard I can remember my first one too: July 20, 1995, Maldonado, Uruguay, in the Copa América semifinal between the U.S. and Brazil. I was a college student doing research on my senior thesis in Buenos Aires, and when the U.S. made an unexpected run to the final four in the Copa América, I joined two buddies on the ferry from B.A. to Montevideo, where we took a bus the rest of the way.
What do I remember? Freezing my tail off in the South American winter. Doing shots with my pals before the game to try and stay warm. Wearing my red vertical wavy-striped U.S. jersey in the stands and getting a photo taken next to a group of cross-dressing Brazil fans. (The cross-dressing was never fully explained.)
The U.S. lost 1-0 to the world champions but still had a fantastic tournament. I got my first cap—and an experience that I wanted to repeat again and again for as long as I can. (Except the shots-before-the-game part. I don’t do that when I’m working.)