In the words of Nile Rodgers and Chic ....
Ahhhhhhhh freak out!
Howard is almost universally beloved by U.S. supporters -- aside from my friend Mike, but we'll get to that later. ESPN's Ian Darke has all but open-mouth kissed him during U.S. and Everton broadcasts.
There's no exact Sloan Conference-approved advanced analytic to prove this statement, but watching the U.S. play in the last five or six years it's hard to think of a keeper more important to his team's success than Howard. Iker Casillas, Gigi Buffon, Manuel Neuer, etc. are all better keepers by whatever metric you want to use. (Unless you're Jonathan Wilson then the top No. 1 in the world is some random guy playing in the Bosnian Second Division, but I digress.) The U.S. without Howard, considering the team's limitations in other places on the field, is a scary thought to process.
This is classic "eye test" stuff, but watching the U.S. play it seems like Howard keeps them in a ton of games with his reflexes and ability to make highlight reel double save. How many times has Howard kept the U.S. in a match during the first half, setting up one of their trademark late smash-and-grabs?
My friend Mike argues Howard is overrated and when the money is on the line -- namely the 2010 World Cup vs. Ghana -- Howard couldn't come up with a save on Asamoah Gyan to keep the U.S. alive in South Africa. To some degree that's true. We all probably look at Howad through red, white and blue glasses, clouding our judgment and likely overrating his worth.
We can probably all agree Howard is a very solid -- if not great -- international keeper.
The mild irony here is that for years the one position the U.S. national team had a surplus was a keeper, although looking back now maybe it was just an anomaly to have two guys -- Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller -- at their peak at the same time. The point is, the U.S. never has had to worry about finding a keeper. For all the talk of the Cote D'Ivorie's "golden generation" of players, the Elephants still had to rely on shaky Boubacar Barry all these years. Granted, America's never had anyone quite like Didier Drogba, but dammit, we've got guys who can strap on the gloves and play in net.
At the moment the U.S. keeper pool isn't quite as strong as it was 10 years ago, but it's not barren.
For two matches, albeit one at the Azteca, the U.S. can survive with Brad Guzan -- assuming he's not completely shell-shocked from allowing 50+ goals with relegation threatened Aston Villa in the Premier League. Who knows, maybe this opens the door, after years of being an international understudy, for Guzan to take over.
Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid are young and starting for their MLS clubs, but it's doubtful Jurgen Klinsmann would roll the dice with either of them for these important qualifiers. Nick Rimando would probably be the No. 2 behind Guzan in any case in the short term.
Where the issue for these two games becomes, shall we say, sticky is Klinsmann has seemingly painted himself into a corner opting to play young defenders Omar Gonzalez is 24, Timmy Chandler is 22. (The other starters from last month's game vs. Honduras Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson are 27 and 25 respectively, not young in soccer terms.) More important than saying this group is young, they have very few international caps among them -- plus Chandler and Johnson's first language is German. Is dropping veteran Carlos Bocanegra back into the starting lineup as a "experience" Band Aid a route anyone wants to go at this point?
Having Howard behind them there instills a little more confidence in the defenders than Guzan, regardless of their respective physical capabilities.
Take Gonzalez, don't you think he feels a little better stepping onto the field knowing Howard is back there -- even if he might get screamed at in the process? If we as fans have elevated Howard to this lofty hero status, wouldn't his teammates feel the same way?
The big takeaway here is the U.S. is sitting on zero points with a must-win scenario on March 22 in Denver vs. Costa Rica followed by a trip to the Azteca without Howard, Landon Donovan and Steve Cherundolo. That's a combined 316 caps on the bench due to injuries and an existential crisis.
As great an idea it would be for Klinsmann to reach out to Friedel -- who played for Tottenham Thursday in the Europa League vs. Inter Milan but retired internationally -- it's not going to happen. It's a nice pipe dream, but nothing more. (And as for keepers carrying their teams in an international setting, hard to top what Big Brad did in Korea in June 2002.)
Anyways, if we're going to recall a retired U.S. keeper, as the always affable @ChrisThomasFC suggests, there can be only one choice.
The man I affectionately call, Biff.