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Tim Howard to take one-year break from U.S. national team

U.S. World Cup standout Tim Howard is taking off the next year from international soccer, U.S. Soccer announced Thursday, and my initial reaction is pretty straightforward: OK, he’s earned it.

Howard is 35, and he’s coming off an outstanding World Cup in which he almost single-handedly kept the U.S. in its round of 16 game against Belgium with a preposterous 15 saves (FIFA amended the initial 16-save tally after the match). Howard has 104 caps and 55 wins in his international career, the most for a U.S. goalkeeper. He has given plenty to the cause over the years, and given that goalkeepers can stay in their prime longer than field players, there’s every reason to think Howard can still compete for the No. 1 spot at World Cup 2018.

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​Howard spoke at length with U.S. coach JurgenKlinsmann about the decision, and one of the things Howard would like to do is to spend more time with his children, who live in Memphis, Tenn., and whom Everton manager Roberto Martínez has given him permission to visit during international breaks.

“Having played overseas for the last 12 years and missing out on spending time with my family, making this commitment to my family is very important at this time," Howard said in comments released by U.S. Soccer. "I am grateful for the willingness of both Jurgen Klinsmann and Everton manager Roberto Martínez to afford me the opportunity to spend time with my kids. It’s the right decision at the right time. Jurgen has always been up front with all the players in saying you have to earn your place, which is something I agree with, so I look forward to coming back next fall and competing for a spot.”

Howard, who will suit up for Everton to face Arsenal on Saturday, will be available for selection to the national team again starting in September 2015, with the start of World Cup qualifying and the combined CopaAmérica set to take place in 2016. And given how Klinsmann works, Howard will have to earn the top spot again, which is hardly a bad thing.

Competition for starting spots is always good on a national team, and one of the hallmarks of Klinsmann’s tenure has been the increased internal competition at every position on the field. Now Brad Guzan, the 29-year-old Aston Villa keeper, will get the chance he has been craving for a long time, an opportunity to stake his claim as the U.S. No. 1 between the posts.

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“We had a very good and productive conversation," Klinsmann said. "I totally understand Tim’s situation. He was very straightforward and honest in his approach, and I admire him for that. He has a wish to take a step back to take care of his family, and we came to the conclusion that it’s absolutely fine that he takes time off from international soccer until after next summer’s Gold Cup, and then we re-evaluate. I told him as long as he is the same Tim Howard that we always see performing well, he will be welcome back with open arms and right back competing for a spot. He knows that he has to prove that he deserves to be back.

“This gives us a huge opportunity to see Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando going forward and fighting for the No. 1 spot. We have young talented goalkeepers with Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid, who have been brought along the last couple years, so this may give them a chance here and there to get some game time. Always when somebody steps aside for a moment, it gives an opportunity for the next ones in line. “

The timing for Howard’s decision is simple: Next week the U.S. will announce the roster for its first post-World Cup friendly, which takes place on Sept. 3 in Prague against the Czech Republic. A mostly European-based squad is expected, including a few younger faces, according to a source with the federation. (It remains to be seen whether the roster will include Jermaine Jones, who hasn’t played since the World Cup as he tries to work out a move to an MLS team.)

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​In the wake of Howard’s decision, there will be plenty who note that Landon Donovan took his share of criticism from some quarters for his three-month voluntary sabbatical from the sport in early 2013, including missing an important World Cup qualifier that the U.S. lost. But I would respond to that in a few ways:

• If Donovan needed to take his sabbatical it for his own mental health, then it was the right choice, and he’d done plenty for U.S. Soccer over the years.

• Howard’s leave of absence is coming at the start of a new four-year cycle, not in the midst of World Cup qualifying. Klinsmann knows what he’s getting from Howard, and if we’re being honest, the only (semi-)important event for the U.S. men in the next year is the CONCACAF Gold Cup next summer. Let’s see how Guzan or Rimando does in that tournament. It was Rimando who backstopped the USA to the title in 2013.

• How a coach treats his players in any sport should always be a case-by-case decision, and to act like every player should be treated the same is naïve. Howard was the U.S.’s best performer in Brazil, and he’s earned the right to take the next year off from the national team.