PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad — Tim Howard will be back in goal for the U.S. in a game that matters on Tuesday when the U.S. meets Trinidad and Tobago in their World Cup qualifier at Hasely Crawford Stadium (6:30 p.m. ET, BeIN Sports, NBC Universo).
The last time that was the case, the occasion was the 2014 World Cup second round in Salvador, Brazil, where Howard put up a historic 15-save performance as the U.S. ultimately lost 2–1 in extra time to Belgium. Howard took a year’s sabbatical from the national team after that to spend more time with his kids, and he made his initial return between the posts in last month’s 1–0 friendly loss to Costa Rica.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann announced after that game that he would start a rotation system between Howard and Brad Guzan. While Guzan started in Friday’s 6–1 win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Howard will get the call in the much harder matchup on the road in Trinidad.
When asked on Monday if Klinsmann views his goalkeepers as 1 and 1a or 1 and 2, he had a simple reply: “For me it’s both No. 1 goalkeepers. I take it one game at a time. They do it the same way. They are proud to represent their country. If one is on the bench he’s going to scream for the other one. The chemistry between both is very, very good, and that’s obviously key if you do something like [platooning].”
For his part, Soca Warriors coach Stephen Hart said having Howard in goal is even bigger for the Americans than many are saying. “Tim Howard is back. I think that’s a massive part of the U.S. team, whether people want to admit that or not,” Hart said. “His performance against Belgium was for me the single best goalkeeping performance I’ve ever seen in a World Cup.”
As for Klinsmann, he said he has sat down with Howard and Guzan individually and in a group to discuss how he’ll handle the platoon. As he did this week, he’ll give the players’ advance notice on which games each one will start.
Klinsmann also spoke of the rotation system he used as the Germany coach with Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann ahead of World Cup 2006. Klinsmann ended up choosing Lehmann as the starter for the tournament itself.
“Obviously the relationship between Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann was a little bit different going way, way back,” said Klinsmann, drawing chuckles, considering the sometimes heated rivalry those two German keepers had. “But still there, even if they were not the biggest buddies they were very, very professional … Then I had to make a decision before the World Cup in 2006 which was very difficult, and the way Oliver Kahn took it was unbelievably exceptional.”
Klinsmann believes that goalkeeper rotation pushed both keepers to another level, and that is informing his current strategy with Howard and Guzan. There are potential pitfalls, of course, including forcing your back line to adjust and readjust to a new keeper. But time will tell if Klinsmann’s decision is the right one.
IN OTHER NEWS AHEAD OF THE GAME
• Klinsmann said before he announced the callups for this camp he talked to Fabian Johnson about the incident that led to Johnson being sent home from the team last month. Klinsmann had done that after expressing his unhappiness publicly that Johnson had asked to come out of the Mexico game late for fear of getting an injury.
Johnson had a good game against St. Vincent, scoring once off a free kick and being dangerous throughout while playing at left midfield, the same position he mans for his club, Borussia Mönchengladbach. Johnson is the only U.S. player competing in this season’s UEFA Champions League, where he recently scored against Juventus.
“It’s been a good communication with Fabian,” said Klinsmann. “I tried to bring my point across, what kind of happened in that very specific game. And he understood that. It’s always tricky for coaches to look inside of a player, how he feels certain things. You can never say if it’s the fear of an injury or if it’s an injury. Because only the player feels that, the level of tiredness, the level of exhaustion in a game. So he goes through that process as well.”
“He’s playing now every four days games in the Champions League and the Bundesliga on the highest level. He get challenged, his body gets challenged, and he hops on a flight here coming down to a World Cup qualifier. It’s very demanding. I try to understand the players’ position all the time, and then you explain the coach’s position as well. And when we do certain things or say certain things we do that for a reason. We’re not doing certain things for putting someone down. That’s not our goal.”
Johnson politely declined an interview request before training on Monday.
• Jermaine Jones said he would be ready to play on Tuesday after not fully training on Sunday due to a muscular issue. Every U.S. player trained on Monday. Asked for his impressions of the playing surface, Jones said: “I would say it’s not a nice field.”
• Hart, the Trinidad and Tobago coach, smiled and said he was “overjoyed” when he learned that Clint Dempsey had been dropped from the U.S. roster. Hart also said that turmoil off the field in his country’s soccer federation—the TTFA, which is readying for a presidential election—had made things difficult for his team.
“Everything off the field has an impact on the field, whether people believe that or not,” he said. “Stability and efficiency off the field usually lends itself to better sort of planning, detail, performance, those sort of things. We have tried very hard to isolate all of that from the players. It’s difficult, because of course they can read—the paper and the media. Our players have endured a lot. I myself sometimes wonder why … They are of the mindset that they will continue to do their best under the present conditions because they love their country.”
• This stadium is hallowed ground for U.S. Soccer, of course, after Paul Caligiuri’s Shot Heard Round the World here in 1989 gave the U.S. a 1–0 victory over Trinidad and sent the Americans to their first World Cup in 40 years. U.S. assistant coach Tab Ramos played in that ’89 game, which will have its 26th anniversary on Thursday.
“Nov. 19, right?” Ramos said on Monday. “I remember the date because it was a big day for us.”
“This place is crazy,” Ramos continued, looking to the stadium seats. “They didn’t have all these seats [then], so it was like standing-room, and it was people just hanging everywhere. You couldn’t fit one more person in here. There were people climbing over the fences to try to get in from everywhere.”
I asked Ramos exactly which spot on the field Caligiuri scored from. “It was on that side,” he said, pointing to the area. “There was a throw-in from Brian Bliss. Brian gave me the ball. I gave Paul Caligiuri a bad ball, a bouncing ball, and he had to dribble over somebody and shoot it.”
That goal ushered in the modern era of U.S. Soccer.