Throughout the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying cycle, ussoccer.com will be documenting the developing competition between the U.S. Men’s National Team’s goalkeeper pool.
When U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Bruce Arena named his World Cup Qualifying roster on March 15, the team’s goalkeeping situation was less settled than it had been in quite some time.
Three-time World Cup veteran Tim Howard had only just played his first league game after being sidelined for four months by a right adductor injury suffered against Mexico in November, while Brad Guzan had seen scant time throughout the Barclays Premier League campaign with Middlesbrough.
The only two goalkeepers to man the U.S. net in World Cup Qualifying matches since October 2005, both were not in top form, and that was before Guzan withdrew from the squad due to the expected birth of his second child.
“The position was wide open because of Tim’s injury and with Brad not getting a lot of playing time and the fact he was having a baby at the time of the first qualifier,” MNT goalkeeping coach Matt Reis (pictured above) told ussoccer.com. “It was a situation where there was a void to be filled and we needed someone to step up.”
A long-time veteran of the U.S. setup, Nick Rimando has been teammates with Howard going back to the 1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Nigeria. While Howard has been the starter at every level, Rimando’s been there almost every step of the way, pushing and competing with his teammate and friend.
Though he served as the USA’s third-choice goalkeeper at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the lack of a call-up through 2016 left Rimando thinking that time may be up on his international career.
“I was on the preliminary roster for Copa America, and once that kind of shut down I didn’t know where my international career was going,” Rimando told ussoccer.com. “I didn’t want to shut the door on it because I knew I could still play and contribute to this team, and it’s a good thing that 2017 rolled around and Bruce and Matt gave me a call. When that call comes, you never turn it down in my opinion.”
- READ MORE: Tim Howard never doubted recovery timeline
Having played admirably during the MNT’s 0-0 draw with Serbia on Jan. 29, Rimando entered camp knowing he might be called upon to start against Honduras. If it happened, the 37-year-old would have become the oldest player in MNT history to make a World Cup Qualifying debut.
“I knew there was a possibility of me starting the game, one that was very important to U.S. Soccer and the Road to Russia.” he continued. “The preparation for me didn’t change -- it’s working hard, preparing like I’m going to play and being ready. If I’m not starting, I’m there for the guy who is.”
In the end, Howard’s seven-save performance on March 11 at New York Red Bulls and another 90 minutes against Minnesota United FC the day before camp began convinced Arena that he was ready to go.
“Push comes to shove and Tim did an excellent job of working hard and getting healthy again,” Reis said. “He was able to play a couple MLS games before the first round of qualifiers, so that ended up helping out a lot.”
In a game in which the U.S. converted nearly every quality chance it had, Howard still made four key saves in the 6-0 shutout against Honduras. Four days later, he controlled his box well and made another three stops as the U.S. earned a valuable road point in Panama.
The most-capped U.S. goalkeeper of all time, for Howard the set of matches began the final push of a qualifying campaign that he hopes ends with the U.S. heading to Russia. Still 14 months out from the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the veteran eyes becoming the first U.S. goalkeeper to appear in three separate tournaments, but knows there is plenty still at play before he gets there.
“It’s a long way off,” Howard told ussoccer.com. “You have to be healthy, and most importantly you have to be playing well. If not, the opportunity will pass you by. For me it’s one step at a time. I’ll continue to try and push and get opportunities, and when I get them grab them with both hands. Most importantly you have to qualify. I think we’re going to do it, we’re all very confident in that, but [these results are] one step.”