That wasn’t what the announcement turned into for some though. For a sizable number of U.S. fans, the news was met with the predictable, but still rather disappointing, response of derision and disdain. Not at Howard for taking a well-earned break, but rather at U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann for what the announcement brought back memories of.
Klinsmann’s decision to leave Landon Donovan off the 2014 World Cup team is a wound that still festers in the psyche of a number of U.S. fans, and many of those same fans believe part of the reason for Donovan’s exclusion from the U.S. World Cup team was Klinsmann’s lingering resentment over Donovan’s decision to take a break before World Cup qualifying began in 2013.
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Yes, some believe Klinsmann waited a year to exact his revenge. As if Donovan went to U.S. pre-World Cup training camp expecting to make the team, only to walk into a room and find a snow-covered Swordfish on the wall like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas before having his dream of a fourth World Cup ended in brutal fashion.
Even though the U.S. team went on to have a strong showing at the World Cup, and even though Donovan’s recent decision to retire from the sport suggests the candle was truly already dying out for the American legend, the resentment still lingers over Klinsmann’s decision, and that feeling came right back out as Klinsmann gave his very public support to Howard’s decision to step away from the U.S. team.
Holding aside for a second that Howard, he of the 104 caps, three World Cups and unforgettable performance in Brazil, deserved to have his moment appreciated and not hijacked by transgressions that had nothing to do with him, the attempts to make Howard’s break and Donovan’s break the same thing are just misguided.
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How so? Howard isn’t leaving the game. He is still going to be playing, and starting, in one of the world’s top leagues, embarking on his ninth season at Everton. Donovan left the game completely, packed up and went on a much-needed break. He didn’t touch a soccer ball for months, and took a vacation at a time when both his club team and national team were playing important games.
Howard consulted extensively with Klinsmann on this decision, and is taking a break during the best possible stretch of time that will exist in the next four years. Donovan took his break as the national team was about to begin the Hexagonal Round of World Cup qualifying, specifically a very tough first three matches, which forced Klinsmann to turn to other players to save the team from a potentially devastating poor start to qualifying.
At the heart of it, Donovan needed to get away from the game for his own good, to find that joy for the game he had lost. He needed to get away from the game because he was emotionally and mentally spent, and if he hadn’t take a break, he might have walked away from the game even sooner than he is now doing.
Howard’s situation isn’t nearly that drastic. After spending part of the past nine summers on national team duty, Howard is taking the opportunity to spend more time with his family, and also to put less wear and tear on his body as he powers through his mid-30s. He’s also stepping aside to give an opportunity to a close friend and capable deputy in Brad Guzan, who looks more than ready to step in and succeed Howard as the U.S. number one.
Laying out the differences in the two breaks does not mean one player’s hiatus was better or worse than the other’s, but rather that they were very different, and calling them similar is simply wrong. Donovan needed his break at a time when he was dealing with the mental wear-and-tear of being the face of Americans soccer for the previous dozen years. He wasn’t sure if he even wanted to continue, and anyone who questioned the seriousness of Donovan’s internal conflict need only look at his recent decision to retire despite the fact he can still play at a high level.
Donovan took his break because he had to take it, and couldn’t worry about the timing or the potential consequences. Howard is also taking a break because he needs it, but is also going through with it because the timing works out perfectly for both he and the U.S. team.
Questions about Klinsmann’s decision to leave Donovan home will linger for ages, and only Klinsmann truly knows why he left Donovan home, but that doesn’t change the fact that Howard deserved the respect of having his moment celebrated, instead of hijacked.
Perhaps it was easy to brush aside the Howard news because of the sense that he will be back in a year, and will once again be the starter in the fall of 2015. That is a big assumption. Howard will be 36 then, and will have had the first real chance to spend a full summer with his family since he first had children. Sometimes, when veteran players experience that, it becomes that much tougher to pull them away from it. Brad Friedel stepped away in 2003, a year after his 2002 World Cup heroics, and while there was a sense back then that he would be back, Friedel only played one more match for the U.S. before retiring for good in 2005.
Howard could very well step aside for good, especially if other goalkeepers step up to fill the void. If Guzan shines as the starter, and blossoms into the standout many believe he can be, Howard could very easily walk away for good, knowing his old job is in good hands, and knowing he gave plenty to the U.S. team in a career that goes down as one of the best in national team history.
Maybe then, when Howard officially hangs up the national team gloves, will Howard receive the admiration and recognition he deserved to receive on Thursday.