Tim Howard is ready to resume as the No. 1 goalkeeper for the United States
MANCHESTER, England -- Tim Howard slides into his seat in a hotel lounge just outside the tiny village of Hale, England, and starts to talk about the final act of his decorated career. He's still just 37, not outrageously old for a goalkeeper, and he looks pretty much the same as he did fewer than two years ago in Brazil when his 15 saves in the U.S. national team's extra time, last-16 loss to Belgium set a World Cup record and made him a household name back home.
That night in Salvador might not seem so long ago for the rest of us but for Howard, it might as well be an eternity. A lot has changed for him since then.
As the New Jersey native sips his coffee, he's fewer than two weeks from making his final appearance for Premier League Everton, the club he's been the backbone of for the past decade. A day after saying goodbye, he'll report to U.S. national team camp as he has done since 2002. But for the first time since 2006, he's unsure if he'll start for the Americans at a major international tournament -- in this case, next month's Copa America Centenario -- or be relegated to the supporting role he occupied for the second half of his farewell season in the Premier League.
Not playing has been a big adjustment for a player who can barely remember not being an automatic No. 1. It's just one of many he's had to make lately. Howard has lived in the northwest of England for the past 13 years. He moved here shortly after signing with Manchester United from Major League Soccer's MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) in 2003, when he was barely 24. But having signed with the Colorado Rapids in March, he's counting the days until it's time to go home.
"I won't miss the weather. I won't miss the food," he joked as rain pelted the windows. "But I definitely got lucky. When I left Man United, it came down to three teams: Everton and two others that aren't in the Premier League anymore. To be at one club that long is special.
"Do I leave I fulfilled? For sure. There's no better place in the world to play football."
That's not to say these past few months have been easy. Howard started his 414th and final game for Everton on Sunday, a 3-0 win against Norwich. He's played 107 times for the U.S. national team. But for the most part he's been a spectator for both club and country since January, making a total of three appearances.
"When you play all the time you get accustomed to it," he said. "It's not that you take it for granted but it becomes such a second nature that when you're not in there, you begin to appreciate it so much more. I never took it for granted. But now I'm thinking, I never, ever want to be in this position again."
The thing is: he soon could be. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has yet to name a starter heading into the Copa America and while Howard appears to have the inside track after starting Everton's past two home games (Brad Guzan finished Aston Villa's season on the bench), Klinsmann could easily decide that the 31-year-old Guzan is his guy for this cycle. "We'll have good talks over the next couple of days with Brad and Tim, and then I'll let you know more," said the U.S. coach during a Facebook chat on Tuesday.
If that happens, would Howard -- the American that tournament organizers are promoting most alongside Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez -- be OK with that?
"I knew when I left Brazil that the next four years would be different," Howard said. "There are guys that when they get to my point, they retire from the national team. I still feel like I can contribute, and I think those thoughts are justified.
"This is a process," he continued. "The plan is to end in Russia in 2018. I know that things are changing for me professionally. Would I be content [not starting]? No. But would I be a rabble-rouser, throwing things and upsetting the rhythm of the team? No. But that's not even played into my thinking."
It's important to note the doubt around Howard's role this summer is largely of his own making. It was his decision to take a year off from the national team following Brazil 2014 in order to spend the international breaks with his two children, who live in Tennessee with his ex-wife.
"In hindsight I probably shouldn't have taken the year off," Howard said. "By making that decision, I gave people questions they actually didn't have. That paled in comparison to what I got from taking the year off but the smart thing to do would have been to not take it."
It was also his choice to call Everton chairman Bill Kenwright late one night halfway through last season and tell him he wanted to leave two years before his contract expired. That, as much as anything else, led him to losing his starting job to Joel Robles.
"There's a lot of stuff people don't know," Howard said. "The conversations with Colorado happened way back in October and November. The chairman and the board literally did everything in their power to grant my wish. That doesn't happen very often. They've been beyond loyal to me. At the same time, I basically went in and told my employer I need to leave," Howard added. "I knew going in that once I told them that, the manager's got to put the team first."
But a vocal minority of Everton fans had been calling for Howard to be dropped before word leaked in January that the Colorado deal was in the works. He had made a couple of costly mistakes and speculation was rife about how much Howard had left.
"He's not been as good the last two years," said Neil, a Liverpool taxi driver and lifelong Everton supporter, outside Goodison Park following Howard's penultimate start for the club, a 2-1 win over Bournemouth on April 30. Fans are fickle, of course, but he wasn't necessarily wrong, either, because the standard Howard set during his first eight years at the club was so high.
Howard admits that at first, the criticism stung.
"One of my main goals when I first came here in 2006 was to win the fans over," he said. "The amount of cards and messages and well wishes that I've gotten is astounding. It's drowned out any fickle, pretend Everton fans."
If Howard gets the gloves from Klinsmann this summer, it won't be solely because of his skills or experience. His presence in goal and ability to organize the players in front of him will be factored in, too.
"Tim's really particular about the way his defense is set up," said U.S. defender Geoff Cameron. "He'll tell you straight up: you need to do this. Brad's like that, too, but Tim can kind of scare you in a way. There's a fear factor a little bit. Tim and I are good friends but he'll lay into me or he'll give me that look... you don't want to let him down."
Howard will be 39 when the next World Cup kicks off and what happens beyond this summer is anyone's guess. But if he's back in goal for the U.S. next month, his aim will be to prove that he hasn't lost a step.
"He's still a very, very capable goalkeeper," Everton captain Phil Jagielka, Howard's teammate for the past nine years, told ESPN FC after the Bournemouth match. "He will be sadly missed here, but he's got a lot left in his football career."
Whatever happens this summer, Howard will be ready to give his best. "My mentality has never been to be a No. 2," he said. "I think that's what's gotten me to this point. I'm a number one goalkeeper even if I don't play on a certain day."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.