Following the 2014 World Cup, it was questionable whether or not USMNT goalkeeper Tim Howard would play in another World Cup. Judging by his heroic performance in the team’s loss to Belgium in the Round of 16, it’s obvious that Howard still has some good years left in him. But at age 35, it’s tough to project him into the starting 11 for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, which is why Howard’s announcement that he’s taking a sabbatical from national team duty until September 2015 should not be a surprise.
Howard’s leave of absence is the decision of a player who’s not yet ready to retire from international duty but not sure he can commit to another four-year World Cup cycle. Even for a goalie, a world-class goalie at that, playing in a World Cup at age 39 is pushing it. Howard also has to consider his Premier League career with Everton, with whom he has a contract until 2018, not to mention a promising career as a color analyst that’s seemingly waiting for him when he decides to stop playing. With all that on his plate, and all he’s done for the national team since becoming the top-choice keeper in 2007, he deserves a break and a chance to contemplate his future.
The time that Howard’s sabbatical will end is no surprise either. By returning in September of 2015, Howard will have enough time to earn back his starting job prior to the Copa América Centenario in the summer of 2016. For the soccer nations of the Western Hemisphere, this tournament will be the closest they’ll ever get to a regional tournament on par with the UEFA European Championship, which will also take place in the summer of 2016. To put it another way, the Copa América Centenario is a big deal, and a tournament that Howard will absolutely want to participate in, and a tournament in which Jurgen Klinsmann will absolutely want Howard in goal for.
Assuming Howard makes it back and regains the starting job for that tournament, he will then be able to make an informed decision about whether he wants to play in the 2018 World Cup before the crux of the qualifying process. Quite frankly, the USMNT doesn’t need Howard for any matches they’ll play between now and September 2015. All he’ll miss are a few friendly matches, many of which he wouldn’t have been called in for anyway, and the 2015 Gold Cup, a tournament the U.S. could win with their fourth-string goalie just as easily as with Howard.
The only surprising thing about Howard’s announcement is that he used the word sabbatical instead of retirement. Howard was due for a break from the national team after the 2014 World Cup, and no one would have blamed him for hanging up his international cleats following the match against Belgium, which was one of the finest performances by an American goalie ever. Howard’s absence from the national team for the next year will be weird to see, but not unexpected, and at the very least, he’s leaving the door open for a return.