Much has changed since Tim Howard played in his first World Cup qualifier.
“I had a lot more hair [then],” observed Bruce Arena, the coach who gave Howard his start.
That was three World Cups, three coaching changes and 13 years ago. Howard, whose skull is now clean shaven, also had hair atop his head back then.
“I’m old,” he joked Monday after the U.S. national team’s first training session in preparation for Friday’s crucial qualifier against Honduras at Avaya Stadium in San Jose.
“I was young when I first played under Bruce. We’ve had a long-standing relationship. So it’s nice to be back in, work with him again. Particularly as both our careers have evolved.”
In other ways, however, nothing has changed since 2004 because the 38-year-old Howard, the oldest player on the U.S. team, probably will be back in goal Friday. And that may say as much about the Americans’ lack of depth at goalkeeper as it does about Howard’s skill and longevity.
If Howard plays against Honduras it would mark his 34th qualifying cap, the most for a U.S. keeper and 21 more than any other active goalie. Only this time he would take the field after playing only two games since last November, when he had surgery to repair a fracture to a skeletal muscle in his thigh.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be 100% again,” said Howard, who did nothing more than light jogging and stretching exercises Monday.
But, he added, “It’s a big game. And it’s helpful that we have guys who have gone through [qualifying] before, who understand what that takes and the pressures that are on us.”
The U.S. is last in the six-team table after losing its first two games in the final, 10-game hexagonal round of CONCACAF qualifying. The losses against Mexico and Costa Rica last fall cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job and led to Arena’s return as coach after a 10-year absence.
Arena can’t afford to ease back into the job, though, because the U.S. needs at least a win and a draw against Honduras and Panama (March 28 in Panama City) to get its qualifying campaign back on track. That makes Howard the best choice in goal because neither of the other keepers on the American roster, Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando and the San Jose Earthquakes’ David Bingham, has played in a World Cup qualifier, much less one this pressure-packed.
Of the eight other keepers to have trained with the national team, only four played in a game of any kind in the last year.
Yet goalkeeper is just one area where age and injuries have left Arena with limited options. Two U.S. starters have been sidelined in the last week, left wing Fabian Johnson suffering a pulled thigh muscle during a Moenchengladbach’s Europa League game and forward Bobby Wood a back injury playing for Hamburg.
Two other key players, center back John Brooks and forward Jordan Morris, are questionable. Brooks, a center back, was expected to limp into camp late Monday after his German club, Hertha Berlin, delayed his trip to order an MRI test, which showed that Brooks has a “meniscal irritation” in his knee.
Morris, meanwhile, skipped training to receive treatment on his right ankle, reinjured during Sunday’s MLS game in Seattle.
And those injuries are in addition to ones that sidelined Newcastle’s DeAndre Yedlin (thigh) and Nottingham Forest’s Eric Lichaj (pelvis) this month, leaving Arena without his best two options at right back.
“We’re fine,” Arena insisted. “We’re going to have 11 good players on the field Friday.”
And familiar faces too because the absence of Wood creates an opportunity for 34-year-old Clint Dempsey, who is coming off a six-month absence caused by an irregular heartbeat, while the unsettled back line could lead to playing time for DaMarcus Beasley.
Dempsey and Beasley also made their qualifying debuts under Arena, Dempsey in 2004 and Beasley three years earlier. Combined, the trio has played in 100 World Cup qualifiers.
Eleven other players on the roster have combined to play in less than a dozen.
“It’s probably a testament to our longevity,” Howard said. “It’s good to have some pieces in place that have been there, who understand the manager.”