As his U.S. teammates trained under cloudy skies on a brisk Bay Area morning, Tim Howard sat stretching on the sideline. He loosened up his shoulders. He balanced on his left leg and worked his hips. This is the new normal for Howard, fresh off his 38th birthday and a November surgery on his right thigh to repair the adductor muscle.
“I’m old,” chuckled Howard, the Americans’ top goalkeeper the past two World Cups. “That’s every day for me now, between now and the next three years that’s what every day looks like. It’s a process, but hopefully it’ll pay off.”
Howard is expected to start for coach Bruce Arena in Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Honduras at Avaya Stadium, home of the MLS San Jose Earthquakes, before the Americans play at Panama four days later.
“It’s good to have him back,” defender DaMarcus Beasley said Monday. “He’s been a big part of this team for a long time now. Big games, World Cups, qualifiers. To have him back with the team and the group is a big plus for us and for everybody to see him back, especially after the injury he had at the end of last season.”
Brad Guzan, who was chosen as the starter for last year’s Copa America and then called to sub for an injured Howard in the 40th minute of the first U.S. World Cup qualifying loss to Mexico, was replaced last week for family reasons. Guzan and his wife welcomed a baby girl Sunday night “9 pounds, I’m told, and 22 inches long,” Arena announced, though he didn’t know the baby’s name except that she arrived a little early.
“In these situations, I think family comes first, despite what we’d all like to think otherwise around the sporting side,” Arena said. “He needs to be with his family this week, so the decision for him to stay makes sense.”
Howard is confident kicking with his right foot again but he notes, “Thankfully I have half a decent left foot” when he needs to use it.
The U.S. is 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time, and Arena returned to coach the team 10 years after his firing. He was re-hired in November to replace Jurgen Klinsmann on the heels of those two defeats: 2-1 to El Tri at home and 4-0 at Costa Rica.
Arena will be cautious with Howard as well as Clint Dempsey , who is back playing after dealing with an irregular heartbeat. Leading into his first season with the MLS Colorado Rapids, Howard had hoped his body would allow him to return to the Americans’ roster for qualifying, but didn’t want to put anything in stone without knowing for sure he would be healthy. Now, he never expects to be fully 100 percent.
“I kind of felt that I’d be ready but I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. It was a long rehab,” he said. “A lot could happen between whenever that was, January, and now. We have setbacks all the time. I was on the right path, I was always going to be March 11 or there about, but I didn’t want to put a timeframe on it and have a setback, so for me it was just personal. I’m 38, I don’t think I’ll ever be 100 percent again. But I’ve played through everything in my career, so it’s not an issue for me.”
Fellow goalkeepers Nick Rimando and David Bingham of the Earthquakes worked through drills Monday with position coach Matt Reis. Arena wouldn’t say whether he had decided to promote Howard to No. 1 keeper before Guzan’s availability became a question.
“We haven’t decided our starting lineup yet. We’re playing Friday, it’s Monday,” he told The AP. Sounders stars Dempsey and Jordan Morris didn’t train Monday, though Dempsey came to the field. Morris stayed at the team hotel Tuesday for treatment on the right ankle he injured during the first half of Seattle’s 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls on Sunday.
Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski, on the 2014 World Cup roster, was added by Arena late Monday to bring the roster to 26. Quakes coach Dominic Kinnear was one spectator at his team’s practice field, and Arena walked across the grass to offer his appreciation.
“Hey, Dom, thanks for your hospitality,” Arena said during a short chat. Howard, who did light jogging along with his stretching regimen, also said hello and they shared a laugh.
While Howard said the “unknown” concerned him in regards to his comeback and trying to simulate game action, he considers himself fortunate his timing and instincts are still intact at this stage of his career.
“I’m thankful that my reflexes and my reactions haven’t slowed,” he said. “So that’s been a good thing. I probably take less risks and I think that’s helpful.”