ussoccer.com caught up with U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard as the team begins qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and faces a tough test in Guatemala in the second game of the Semifinal Round. Howard talks about the challenges of World Cup qualifying, the difficulties of playing away in CONCACAF, and the journey that hopefully ends with a place in Brazil.
ussoccer.com: We're at the beginning of this qualifying journey for the United States and it's your third time in a cycle that hopefully culminates in a trip to the FIFA World Cup. How would you sum up the World Cup qualifying process in one word and why?
Tim Howard: "Difficult," I think is the word I'd use to describe it. You need to win your home games and then anything you can do on the road - pick up a point or a win - to keep you going. You have to win your home games, because if you don't that puts pressure on you to go away that next game and get a result. We go to some really hard places to play. I haven't quite put my finger on why that is and I don't think anyone has. We can beat a team 3-0 at home, cruise by and play really well, but then we go down to their place and they make it really tough. The crowds are difficult, the stadium is always rocking and the travel isn't always easy. It becomes a mental struggle as well. You come in from your teams in Europe. You have a few days of training and then you travel to play a game. Once you come through qualifying you breathe a huge sigh of relief.”
ussoccer.com: We're on our first away trip in this World Cup Qualifying cycle. This is something that teams face around the world: going on the road trying to win points. It's not something unique to CONCACAF, but certainly this region poses some really tricky challenges…
TH: "I think if you look around Africa, certainly South America and even Europe can be tricky - if you look at the top teams in those continents, they'll go to a smaller country in qualifying and lose. The conditions aren't great and it's not what they're used to. That's part of what World Cup qualifying offers.”
ussoccer.com: Four years ago the U.S. had a similar trip to Guatemala in the sense it was the first major away test for the team during that qualifying cycle. You guys came out with a 1-0 win in a really tight game. What do you remember about that amazingly intense atmosphere?
TH: "I remember pulling up to the stadium and it being full. I had played in a lot of big games on certain teams, but I had never experienced that - where you get there two hours before kickoff and the entire stadium was full and singing. Actually, to be honest, I thought there was a game going on - like there might have been a game going on before us. But then you see the pitch was empty and it was our game they were ready for. It was incredible."
ussoccer.com: How does a victory on the road in a big qualifier set the team up for success down the road in qualifying?
TH: "It gives you so much confidence when you can win a game like that. You have to keep going away from home and when you start losing games away from home early on, it begins to creep into your mind. "How are we going to pull this out, how are we going to get points away from home?" When you can do it so early on it boosts the whole group and it can give you the confidence and bravado you need [for the rest of qualifying]."
ussoccer.com: We mentioned it's your third time around but for a good chunk of the team, it's their first significant run through World Cup qualifying. How do you share the experience and explain what to expect?
TH: "We've got enough veteran guys in this group to make sure that the younger guys who haven't been a part of it really understand what it means. But it doesn't take very long to figure it out. One qualifier away from home will open your eyes. You'll realize exactly what this is about.”
ussoccer.com: One of the unique aspects of qualifying is how many different players are used throughout the entire stretch. Last time around more than 40 players played in a World Cup Qualifier…
TH: “There are so many singular moments throughout qualifying that mean so much and then at the end of the process, in 2014, such a small amount of players get chosen. It's humbling because there's so many people who have had a part in helping to qualify. It's not just the players who would go to Brazil. It's a whole group of players and that's the cool thing about World Cup qulaiyfing, you never know who is going to pop up, who is going to star on that day and help you get to the next round or the World Cup.”
ussoccer.com: You're a veteran now. How does it feel to be at the forefront of helping this team try to qualify for its seventh-consecutive World Cup?
TH: It's the biggest honor for any player. You hear the national anthem and it fills you with pride. You feel so special as a player and you realize how important World Cup qualifying is to our country. I remember as a kid watching Stewart, Meola, Friedel, Keller, Claudio… all the big names. I remember watching all those guys, and to be in that position now is pretty special.”