Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Tim Howard says USMNT lacking leadership ahead of 2022 World Cup tune-up against Saudi Arabia

Ahead of the United States men’s national team’s final tune-up match Tuesday versus Saudi Arabia, former USMNT goalkeeper Tim Howard had a lot to say about Gregg Berhalter’s unsettled goalkeeping situation heading into the 2022 World Cup and he also had advice for the current members of the team.

“It’s really good to have a gameplan,” Howard said during his interview on the In Soccer We Trust podcast. “But when those lights come on against Wales, and that first turnover happens and [a shot] whistles past the post, do they look at each other and say, ‘OK, we keep playing, we keep sticking to this,’ or do they go, ‘Oh my God, we’re actually in the thick of it now,’ and hit the panic button?”

With 121 caps to his name, Howard was the last keeper to play between the sticks for the U.S. in a World Cup. He led the team to the Round of 16 match against Belgium in 2014 where he recorded 16 saves to push the game into extra time. 

Howard also had a good read on what needs to change after the team fell to Japan in a friendly last week.

“I like the center backs in the last game but I think that [playing out of the back] doesn’t play to their strengths. The number of turnovers in their own half — it’s an impossibility. It can never happen again if we expect to win a football match at this level,” he said.

Howard said Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman have the ability to pass through lines, but that was not how the match was set up against Japan. The midfield was unable to hold possession, which made life harder for the defenders. After the loss to Japan, Tyler Adams said the team did not stick to the game plan, and if the Americans don’t regroup and find solutions together, they won’t make it out of the group stage in Qatar.

Berhalter also took responsibility for the flat performance, but if the team can’t collectively see openings on the pitch, it won’t matter what the game plan is going into these matches. It’s something to watch for against the Green Falcons, but Howard wants to know if there is a Plan B, because this team won’t be able to dominate possession.

“Winning football matches is the only thing that matters to me,” Howard said. “So if we give the ball away 50 times in the first half as a player, that’s not good enough to me. That’s where leadership is involved.”

Being strong enough as a leader to question the manager in a respectful way is critical for USMNT to move forward, and with such a young team, no one has taken the reigns to be the unquestioned leader in the locker room. The captaincy is shared and while that exposes multiple players to leadership responsibilities, it makes it hard to know who the true leader is.

Part of why it is hard to have a Plan B is that the team does lack change-of-pace options. Howard said he would have included Jordan Pefok in the squad that faced Japan because he wants goalscorers to be “selfish, egotistical and goal hungry.” Being team oriented is a good plus, but if the ball is hitting the back of the net, it doesn’t matter how they got there. Pefok’s strength also causes issues for center backs that can create more room for wingers to grow into. As concern over the U.S. strikers mounts, the calls for Pefok will grow, and the calls will only get louder if the team is held scoreless against Saudi Arabia. 

Howard isn’t worried about the lack of playing time in other areas of the squad, especially when it comes to Christian Pulisic, because the Chelsea winger is the most talented player in the national team pool. Howard believes Pulisic has earned his opportunities in England and will get more playing time under Graham Potter, compared to Thomas Tuchel. 

One area on the USMNT roster that worries Howard is at goalkeeper. He is excited for the talented youngster, Gabriel Slonina, who is likely to go on loan when he heads to Chelsea. But Howard shared some advice that Kasey Keller, another former USMNT goalkeeper, once said: “You can’t judge a goalkeeper until they’ve played 100 games.” Slonina has played 43 matches for the Chicago Fire, of the MLS, and has shown potential. But Howard said it needs to be nurtured to ensure that he is not lost in the Chelsea loan army.

For the USMNT and the 2022 World Cup, goalkeeping duties will come down to either Matt Turner or Zack Steffen. This World Cup created a perfect storm as Steffen and Ethan Horvath went on loan to secure meaningful minutes while Turner is currently a backup for Arsenal. Rhythm is critical for a starting goalkeeper, which is why things are leaning toward Steffen according to Howard and Berhalter. 

Check out the full interview:

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