Tim Howard walked into a circle of reporters as he has done on dozens of occasions over the past decade, only this time felt different.
Rather than facing the kind of questions he had probably grown accustomed to — about the state of the U.S. national team, the condition of the defence, or his team's chances of winning — Howard fielded questions he never faced before. About being away from the national team, whether he had lost the hunger to represent the U.S., and what it felt like to be a backup.
That label — backup — didn't sit too well with Howard, who has spent the past decade as the starting goalkeeper for Everton, and had spent eight straight years as the unquestioned starter for the U.S. before he decided to take a year-long break. Howard heard that stinging word — backup — and parried it away instantly like he would do on the highlight-reel saves we have grown accustomed to.
"Never been a backup," Howard said sternly. "I think that’s a mentality. I work my tail off every day. I know what it means to compete at the highest level, to have a certain level of excellence, and I do that. I’ve never been a backup, never will be. So that’s not something I worry about too much."
Howard made it clear that, in his mind and heart, he was nobody's backup. But just a few minutes earlier, Jurgen Klinsmann stood in the same spot and made it clear that, for the time being, Howard was serving as the backup to Brad Guzan on the U.S. team.
The timing of Klinsmann's declaration was a bit surprising, with two friendlies coming up, offering opportunities to let Guzan and Howard battle it out. Klinsmann made it clear he didn't have the luxury of opening the competition — not with the all-important Confederations Cup playoff game against Mexico looming in a month.
It was less likely about hurting team continuity, and more likely about the message it would send to just let Howard walk back into a starting role after taking a year off. It would become far too easy to consider Klinsmann a hypocrite after what he put Landon Donovan through following his highly publicised sabbatical from the sport.
That is a comparison Howard found himself fighting upon his return. He faced some questions that made it sound as though taking a year off from the national team meant he wasn't actually still playing competitive soccer in one of the world's best leagues.
"Just because I’ve taken some time off from you guys … I played 60 games last year, had a great pre-season — my first full pre-season in over a decade — so I feel fit and ready," Howard told assembled media Wednesday. "I played a lot of games over the last 12 months — more than most people I know."
Howard must have felt a world of difference between the questions he faced Wednesday and the ones he faced the last time he played for the U.S. Fourteen months ago, after a record-breaking performance in the World Cup loss to Belgium, Howard faced questions from a stunned media horde that was trying to make sense of his jaw-dropping 16-save display. It was a performance that propelled him into America's main stream consciousness and boosted his celebrity profile into rarified air.
Shortly after that, Howard decided to take his break — a break that was coming after nine straight years, and nine straight summers, of service to the U.S. It looked like a precursor to retirement, but a year later, Howard stuck to what he always said: that he simply needed a break.
"I never lost that passion. Never lost that passion," Howard said of playing for the U.S. "I’ve been excited about this team. I’ve missed it. I took a year out for my own reasons — for the right reasons — and one of those reasons wasn’t because I lost any passion."
Howard is as passionate as ever. It is that passion that drove him from a young age. That same passion that made him fight for his first starting job as a professional 15 years ago, and the same one that helped him earn a move to Manchester United, the only team he has ever played for that dropped him from a starting role before Klinsmann did. Howard responded to his benching at Manchester United by regrouping and moving to Everton, where he has fashioned one of the best careers in the club's history.
Howard will look to rebound in much the same way with the U.S., and he's in the right form to do it. He is off to a strong start to the English Premier League season, another reason why Klinsmann's decision seemed hasty, but Howard isn't planning on letting his new, unfamiliar role change anything he does.
"I’ll do what I’ve always done: come in, train hard and keep myself fit and ready, and then when the opportunity presents itself, take advantage of it."