ORLANDO, Fla. — Tim Howard says he and his U.S. teammates all know the stakes this week. Nobody needs to spell it out to them. The U.S. men’s national team wants to qualify for World Cup 2018—and desperately wants to avoid being the first U.S. team to miss the World Cup since 1986. That means a win over Panama here on Friday night and at least a tie at Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday are close to essential.
“[The stakes] are high. I think everyone knows they’re high,” Howard told SI.com. “It doesn’t take a veteran to understand that. We’re all aware of this. I think even our young guys have gotten to a level now where they need a World Cup under their belt as much as the older guys do. Because the World Cup is so prestigious, it gives you such an advantage as you progress in your career. So it’s not lost on any of us how important this game is. But it’s a process that we’ve been a part of, and we’re not surprised by what Friday’s pressure will be.”
The U.S. has tied Panama the last four times the teams have faced each other, with three of those occasions on U.S. soil. Another tie on Friday would mean likely the best the U.S. could hope for is finishing in fourth place and being forced to play an intercontinental two-game playoff against Australia or Syria in November. And nobody in the U.S. camp wants that.
The U.S. team made a few critical mistakes in last month’s brutal 2-0 home qualifying loss to Costa Rica. One of them was Howard’s (on the Ticos’ first goal). When asked what needs to be better in the U.S.’s performances this week, he said it’s a team-wide challenge.
“I think we need to be more aggressive—and from the start,” he argued. “And also figure out if the [opponent] tactically is going to be what Costa Rica was: step back, suck us in and hit us on the counter. I think if that’s the case, we’ve obviously learned the right lessons from that and how to play against that over the course of 90 minutes.
“Other than that, just be ultra-aggressive. I think we’re at our best when we’re pressing forward. The best example of that would probably be Honduras in San Jose [a 6-0 U.S. victory]. We played really well. We were connecting passes, playing forward, putting them on the back foot, making them have to question what they were doing. That’s when this team is really dialed in.”
Howard is now 38. He has been to three World Cups and played in two of them. He became a genuine U.S. sports superstar at World Cup 2014 with his performance in a round of 16 loss to Belgium. This is not his first rodeo. But if you think he might publicly question U.S. coach Bruce Arena for platooning him with Brad Guzan over the last four World Cup qualifiers, you would be wrong. Arena has said that Howard’s recovery from groin surgery means it’s tough (this year, at least) for Howard to play in two qualifiers in quick succession.
“I respect Bruce’s decisions,” Howard said. “I always have. I’ve had a long-standing relationship with him. He’s the coach. His idea is what’s best for the team, and we roll with it … I’m one of 23 guys. If my number gets called for the first game or the second game, I’m ready to roll and I go. And if not, then I do what’s asked of me and stay in my lane.”
Like a few of his U.S. teammates, Howard was singled out by former U.S. player and current Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas recently in a rant about the team’s performance of late. But Lalas’s words for Howard—“The Belgium game ended three years ago. We need you to save the ball now”—might have been the harshest of the bunch, implying that Howard was coasting on that 2014 game.
Asked about the Lalas comments, Howard shook his head and smiled.
“He’s been blowing hot air for a long time,” he said. “He was an average player. He was a failed GM. And I think he gets the great thing about sports: Now you have an opportunity to get paid for your opinion when you’re finished playing, and it’s a good thing. Everyone has an opinion. And I think you have to deal with praise and criticism the same way. If you deal with praise the wrong way, it can be detrimental. This is my 20th year playing as a professional. I’ve gotten criticized a lot. But I’m still doing something right. If Alexi wants to speak to me personally, he’s always around. He can find me. The likelihood is he won’t speak to me personally. But that’s just who he is. He’s a character.”
(Lalas’s response: “Tim is right. Now go qualify for the World Cup.”)
Ultimately, Howard said, he expects the U.S. to qualify for this World Cup. The way players’ mentalities work, he explained, contemplating the negative possibilities this week isn’t part of the process.
“If you’re at the highest level, you’re programmed to always be forward-thinking, always setting your mind to something, figuring out how to do it—and then doing it,” Howard said. “That’s no different with this. There’s not a bunch of guys worrying in a room about what-if. What-if doesn’t exist.”
For the rest of us, though? Yeah, what-if is front and center this week. If the U.S. misses the World Cup, that would be a sports catastrophe. But the players know the stakes. And Howard remains convinced that as long as the U.S. can qualify for Russia, there’s no reason why the Americans couldn’t do well at the World Cup itself.
“You look at Mexico the last cycle,” he said. “Tough time qualifying, but there’s six months in between there. The World Cup is bottled into seven days, 10 days, hopefully longer if you keep going. World Cup qualifying is drawn out over the course of two years. At the World Cup it’s just bottled and contained in a different way. I don’t think how you go through qualifying over a two-year cycle determines your energy or your performances over a 10-day period [at the World Cup].”
There will be time to think about World Cup performances at a later date, though. This week is all about qualifying.