Ever since Howard went straight from MLS' MetroStars to Manchester United in 2003 (and was voted the Premiership's goalkeeper of the year in his debut season), the New Jersey native has been one of the great success stories in U.S. soccer. (That he has done so while having Tourette's syndrome makes his achievements all the more impressive.) I'll let you in on a secret, too: There is no better interviewee on the U.S. national team, which is one reason why Howard is one of my go-to quotes in the mixed zone after any U.S. game.
Howard and I had a far-ranging conversation Monday, with topics including his interactions with Charlie Davies and Jermaine Jones, how Landon Donovan has become an Everton cult hero, what he wants to get from the U.S.-England World Cup match on June 12, whether he's comfortable letting big teams like the Dutch dominate possession against the U.S., why he thinks the U.S. should survive its World Cup group and why he will never use Twitter. Enjoy:
SI.com: Now that I'm covering soccer full time for SI, I want to get over here more often to report on U.S. players in Europe and get a sense of what life is like on the ground here in this soccer-mad culture. What's the best way to explain that culture to people in America?
Howard: For football players in Europe, and in England in particular, it's like you're in a fishbowl. Little kids know who you are. Adults know who you are. Grandmas and grandpas know who you are. Everyone has an affiliation with a team. Even the average person who doesn't really follow it too much has a particular team that's in their family or that they followed as a kid. So there's so much coverage of that. Your face is plastered everywhere 24 hours a day. Newspapers. Television.
When you first come over as a player it's really, really weird. People say odd comments, both negative and positive, and you're getting it buying coffee, buying a newspaper, picking your kids up from school. There's always someone there with eyes on you or something to say. And the games mean so much to these people that they're always pointing a finger, good or bad. It's really hard to get used to at first. Your head feels like it's spinning. But eventually you come around.
SI.com: You've been with Everton for a while now, so you must enjoy being with the club. What makes Everton special?
Howard: The history. Every club has history, but it's been branded as the people's club. Even Landon has come here and been welcomed with open arms. It wasn't, "You have to prove yourself to us." The players and the fans have really embraced him. He's done well. But for me this has become my home. I have a real sense of belonging, and I feel like I'm a small piece of the fabric of this club. It's a working-man's club. And it's really easy to fit in if your effort is always there for everyone to see. You don't have to be amazing every time out -- hopefully you're pretty good -- but if you're showing at Everton that you're a hard worker, that you really care about the club, that you're not taking them to the woodshed for every contract, people are going to appreciate you. And you see that in the players that they support at the club. Guys give everything for the club.
SI.com: Everton has had a good 2010 so far: eight wins overall in the new year, including wins over Chelsea and Manchester United. You're up to eighth place in the Premiership now. How high in the standings do you think you can get?
Howard: If all goes well, I think we can get to sixth or seventh. At the moment there's a four-point gap to seventh. And with the teams above us this year, due to the influx of money that keeps coming into the Premier League, there are going to be more teams competing for these spots. Unfortunately we gave ourselves a mountain to climb. The first half of the season was awful. We underperformed. We had way too many injuries to compete, and we just left ourselves a lot to do. So although 2010 has been really good, we've started to get our form and injured players back. So all that has come together. We brought in a player like Landon, who has only helped. We still have a long way to go in terms of what we left ourselves to do. But I think we can keep climbing.
SI.com: There are some teams above you in the Premiership that have had some problems with their goalkeepers, either starting or reserve, this season. Arsenal and Chelsea come to mind. Do you know if Everton has received any interest from other clubs for your services?
Howard: I don't know. You'd probably have to ask them. But no, I'm not going anywhere anytime soon. This is a place where I want to be for the foreseeable future. If they're willing to have me, I'll stay as long as they want me. It's an amazing club, and it's a place where I feel like I can compete. We can push for Europe every year. We can do good things here. We have a generous chairman who gives the manager [David Moyes] money to spend, and he spends it very wisely. So if you look across the board, I'm getting older now [turning 31 last week], so I don't just look at it as, How does it directly benefit me? I look at the overall perspective of where I fit into the club. It's a really good place to be.
There have been questions across Europe and across different clubs about that. Good goalkeepers are hard to come by. I think you can see that overall. There's always going to be a goalkeeper on the move, and there happens to be a domino effect. But I feel like I'll be staying put for a while, I hope.
SI.com: I know that injuries are part of the game, but Everton has had a lot all season. Currently Marouane Fellaini and Tim Cahill are out injured, and a lot of European-based U.S. players are injured now. Are there too many games and not enough time for recovery, especially with an important event like the World Cup coming up?
Howard: Probably. It's hard to say. Our bodies are our tool. Look, we get paid a heck of a lot of money, and no one wants to hear that we have too many games. So I can understand that. Your club has you for the whole year, but then your national team wants you too. You can't have a whole summer off, so there's a lot of responsibility on us as players, and I get that. But sometimes you feel like it's everywhere you turn. There isn't a heck of a lot of break, and that's OK for a 12-month period. But as it starts to build up over the course of a World Cup cycle and you look back over the last three-and-a-half years and you think there has not been a break for this player or that player, yeah, I think your body is just going to break down.
We've had awful injuries this year, the worst I've ever known in my club career. Long-term injuries to big players. You talk about the amount of games missed, it would be frightening to look at the numbers. As far as the U.S. goes, it's probably the same thing. Some of our biggest players have taken injuries. With now Stuie [Holden], gosh, he just had this injection of confidence from coming over here and playing really well at Bolton, finally getting himself into the team, making an impact in the latter stages of qualifying, getting a chance to start, and the timing couldn't be worse.
But we're hoping that Charlie [Davies] makes it, hoping that Jermaine Jones makes it. Gooch [Oguchi Onyewu] should make it. So should Clint [Dempsey]. Stu should be OK, barring any setbacks. But it's been really weird. As long as I've been on the team, going back eight years, we haven't had injuries like that. Maybe one guy hurts his knee and comes back around, but not this close to a big tournament.
SI.com: You mentioned Jermaine Jones. I know he was in Amsterdam last week meeting the team for the first time. How did it go?
Howard: It was cool. He fits in really well. He's got a lot of tattoos, he likes his music. He's a perfect fit for us. And, by the way, he's a fantastic player from what I hear. It's always hard for anyone to get plopped into the middle of a group of his peers, and everyone's looking. Mikey Bradley speaks German and Stevie [Cherundolo] speaks German. Jermaine speaks English, so maybe he feels a little more comfortable that we have those guys around.
It's an easy team to come into. Guys are welcomed with open arms, and we've heard great things about him. It was good to finally have him around. I heard it basically through [journalists] what he's like, and I saw pictures and I read things. So it was really good to get alongside him and talk to him a little bit and meet him and have him around. And hopefully in the buildup he will get fit and be a part of the team. That would be really cool.
SI.com: Do you have any indications of what Jones' chances are for getting healthy for the World Cup?
Howard: I don't know. I've talked to him a little bit, but I don't think he had the ability to put a time frame on it. I'm just hoping he's back running and playing and tackling, and hopefully that's by around May, and then he can integrate into the team and the training. Things like that are a great boost for the morale of the team.
Landon was a perfect example of that. You're used to all the good players you play with, and then someone comes in and adds a bit of life and spunk and spirit, and to have that little injection right before the World Cup would be great. If we can get Charlie back, it would be the same feeling. We're hoping both of them can be back.
SI.com: Have you had a chance to talk to Davies much?
Howard: A little bit since he's been back [in France rehabbing]. He's upbeat. It's hard for me to say, but anytime you have such a tragic instance in your life [Davies was seriously injured in a fatal car crash], it gives you a whole new perspective, new motivation and inspiration. Charlie was a little bit like Stuie -- he was just starting to realize what he could actually accomplish in the game, starting to fulfill some of that potential. He was so confident, scoring in Mexico and the Confederations Cup.
So this may have been the opportunity for him to really step back from the game, whether he wanted to or not. He's rehabbing now, he's back in Europe, and with that hunger, that fire, he's obviously got the goal of being there for the World Cup. That's driving him. He was a fun guy to be around, and I feel like he's even more motivated now. His spirits have been high, and from all accounts he's ahead of schedule, which must make him feel good and continue to motivate him.
SI.com: There was a nice moment after your win on Sunday when Donovan made what might end up being his farewell lap at Goodison Park. How would you describe how his stay here has gone?
Howard: His stay has been fantastic. He's jelled into the club, and people have really accepted him. He's really gotten along with the guys and the people around the club and the staff members. The fans have taken to him, which is a no-brainer. You come in and help Everton win, and they're going to love you. That's just the way they are.
On the field he's done really well. He's showed his talent getting forward, running at people, and he's got a fantastic touch and a nose for the goal when he gets there. He'll kind of be like a cult hero here, because he's here-today-gone-tomorrow, and in that little time he played really well. So he's going to leave people wanting so much more, and that's a good thing. The fans have really taken a liking to him, and you saw that [Sunday]. It was probably his last game at Goodison.
SI.com: David Moyes was saying that Donovan had been welcomed to the club well by his teammates, but he singled out you and captain Phil Neville. What have you guys done?
Howard: Made him the butt of most of our jokes [laughs]. Phil's a phenomenal captain, and he really has his finger on the pulse of the club and knows what makes people go and work. He's been fantastic for Landon. And, of course, me just being a friend and a national-team teammate and an American has helped him. He lives by me, and that was by design. Landon is a big boy, so he doesn't need me to hold his hand, but at the same time it's always nice to have a familiar face to bounce questions off of or ask if you're doing the right thing and to kind of be a buffer. That's really what Phil and I have done. And not just us. There's been plenty of people who have been welcoming for Landon. It's been a great time.
SI.com: Do the U.S. players who are part of the clubs in this northwest part of the country hang out much together away from the field?
Howard: You know what, not a whole lot. Me and Landon and Stuie have probably gotten together way more often. We're always playing on the same day, we're traveling here, there and everywhere. And our schedules, whether most people want to believe it, are pretty brutal. So there's not a heck of a lot of time for us to be getting together. Every couple of weeks we get together for dinner. But we're always in connection.
SI.com: Donovan told me he would like to stay longer at Everton, but it's out of his hands. It may depend on the MLS labor situation. Would you like for him to stay, and what do you think his chances are?
Howard: I think chances are slim, based on what I think I know about the situation. Of course, listen, we all think he's a phenomenal player who adds so much to our team. Why wouldn't you want him to stay? He's showed his class and what he can do. But loads of things come into it: obligations and MLS and the Galaxy and finances. It would be great even if he could extend his stay, but that would just be icing. Because at the moment we're all resigned to the fact that next week will be his last game.
SI.com: The U.S. national team is done with games until the pre-World Cup camp starting in mid-May. How do you feel about the U.S.' chances right now in South Africa?
Howard: I feel good about the team. In terms of chances, that's probably a question of how far we get and what's failure and what's success. I won't make any predictions other than the known fact is the three teams that we get to play [in the group stage]. And I think within that group [England, Algeria, Slovenia] we should get through our group. If we play like we've been playing the last few years, particularly in the big games, we have the ability to go through.
Having said that, it's not going to be as easy as that. We have to go out and perform over the course of three segments of 90 minutes against teams that are going to be fighting tooth and nail to kick our behinds. So I do realize that. But I feel like when we're playing at a really high level, this is a group that we have the ability to get through. Now having said that, we could be talking in July about a whole different ballgame. But at the moment where this team is, we can go there and perform and go into all those games very, very confident.
SI.com: You already play in a league that may be the most watched on the planet. We could probably put you on a street corner in Kenya right now and you'd get mobbed. But how aware are you of the power of the World Cup to make a player a truly global superstar?
Howard: I'm well aware of it. In this World Cup you're going to get a player who maybe you and I know, but most people don't know, who scores a goal or maybe whips in three great crosses, and the next think you know he's linked with big European teams. It doesn't take much to get noticed. And the way the world works today with the Internet, it doesn't take much for a player to get noticed. With some, they'll just get a Twitter account and tell people how good they are and that's all they need.
SI.com: That reminds me, I haven't seen you on Twitter yet.
Howard: No, no, no. I think it's the dumbest thing ever [laughs]. If you're on it I apologize, but for me I don't need Twitter. I always tell people, "Listen, if you're a friend of mine and you're on Twitter and I need to figure something out, I'll call you, I'll text you." The only person I would want to see on Twitter would be Barack Obama.
SI.com: Obama is on Twitter.
Howard: Well, that's the only person I would care what they're doing. I don't think I'd care what any other individual in the world would be doing at one particular moment but him.
SI.com: You see the England players you'll be facing on June 12 all the time. What would you be satisfied with getting out of that game, and how hard will it be?
Howard: It's probably going to be one of the toughest games we've ever played. When all is said and done, I think England will be one of the four semifinalists. I really believe that. This is an amazing England team. They don't always get that credit here at home, but they're going to be a heck of a team to reckon with. Going into the first game we would like a positive result, and I don't think a draw is selling ourselves short. Having an ability to get a draw in the first game sets you up to keep pushing and feel good about yourself going into the next couple of games.
Having said that, as much as you want to have a good start, there are still two other [group] games. You saw it in Confederations Cup. We didn't have a great start, but in the end it worked out. So regardless of the result, we'll hold out hope. But I feel like with all the work that is going to be put in and has already been put in, if we can at a minimum pull out a draw there, we'll feel really good about ourselves.
SI.com: In the 2-1 loss at the Netherlands last week, it seemed like the U.S. strategy was to allow the other team possession, stay compact and try to strike when the chance came up. We've seen that strategy in difficult games against other opponents. Are you comfortable with that approach?
Howard: Yeah. Look, the bottom line was whether we allowed them to or not, they were going to have the lion's share of possession because of how good they are. And when you play the top teams in the world -- and they're one of them -- you might not have much of a choice. Certainly the foundation of what we do -- keep our lines tight, be very compact, defend our 18-yard box and when we have the ability strike quickly and go forward and counter on their mistakes -- over the course of this cycle it has worked for us. Historically that's what we've been. Even in our run in 2002 to the quarterfinals, there wasn't much difference there either. It was a compact unit that defended very well and took its chances on the break.
When you play the big teams, it would be very difficult for us to dominate those games. When you play Brazil and Manchester United and the big teams, they don't get dominated very often. They don't lose very often. So you have to kind of play the cards that you're dealt. We realize our strengths, and that's part of our strength as a unit: staying compact, getting all over the field and trying to put pressure on.
In Holland in the first half of that game we were very good in stretches. Yes, they had the amount of possession, but they didn't cause a whole lot of problems. I think the best shot they had on goal was from José Torres at our own goal from 40 yards out [laughs]. And Wesley Sneijder gets in the box and gets pulled down for a penalty. Had he not been pulled down he would have been in a very good shooting position, so we would have had to defend that. In that first half you look at one play that defined a lot of the game, but they didn't pepper us. They caused us problems, but we solved a lot of them as well.
SI.com: How long do you think it will take for the U.S. to be in the kind of position that the Netherlands was in during that type of hard game, where it dominated possession?
Howard: For me, the answer is we need to have the majority of our players playing a very high level consistently. You look at that game, look at Holland, their players are at Bayern Munich and Real Madrid and Inter Milan. That big setting is nothing to them. To take the ball against international players is nothing to them. They see it every day in training, every week. They're on the field for 90 minutes every single week in big games where the expectations are high. And until you do that, you can't replicate it. It can't be that you play those big games once every three months. It's got to be every single week. And until we can get 11, 15, 22 of our players doing that, it'll be a reach.
SI.com: This is the first time I can remember that the U.S. is favored to get out of its group at the World Cup. Is that a fair expectation?
Howard: I think so. It's hard because you don't ever want to disrespect anybody. I might be guessing in Algeria they're thinking to themselves, We have a chance of getting out of this group, too. But from where I sit, yeah. A lot of that has to do with the games that we've played. Bob [Bradley, the U.S. coach] made a conscious decision to play big games abroad: Switzerland, Sweden, South Africa, Netherlands, Poland, England, Spain. As opposed to past years, where not only have we qualified in CONCACAF but our friendlies were in Boston against Jamaica or in D.C. against Canada.
So now you're thinking, When we get to the World Cup it's on foreign soil against big teams; how are we going to fare? We've shown somewhat of a consistency. We haven't won every game, but we have beaten some teams on foreign soil: Switzerland, Poland and Spain in South Africa. So there have been games that have given people a reason to believe we will get out of the group if we play well enough.