Former US national soccer team goalkeeper Tim Howard calls the current generation of national team players “the most talented” he has seen. And it starts with Christian Pulisic, Chelsea FC’s 22-year-old midfielder.
Howard responded to questions during a teleconference Thursday in anticipation of Chelsea’s visit to Manchester United in a Premier League match Saturday on NBC. Howard, who has returned to NBC as a studio analyst on soccer broadcasts, talked about Revolution coach Bruce Arena and the US team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup; doubts about Liverpool FC’s ability to adjust this season; league-leading Everton’s surprising start to the season; and how being a Black goalkeeper compared with the perception of Black quarterbacks in the NFL.
▪ On Pulisic’s success at Chelsea:
“Clearly he took the No. 10 shirt, it was given to him by [Chelsea manager] Frank Lampard. A massive statement, so it speaks to what a big player Christian is for this massive club in Chelsea.
"And it’s kind of crazy, how young he is. But even the way [Lampard] has monitored his fitness in terms of, ‘Look, we don’t need you back the first game, we need you back fully fit and healthy, ready to go, so you can go the entire season, because you’re such a big player for us,’ speaks volumes.
"Christian rarely disappoints on the football field. He’s willing to to take the ball and be brave, and I think you have to be brave to play football at the highest level. You look at him and you think he’s not the toughest but he rides tackles and he’s willing to mix it up.
"He’s so easy on the eye, you know? He makes the game look really simple and it’s a credit to him. And I think more than anything for Christian is leadership. I saw some reports and some stuff on social media, he congratulated Ethan Horvath and I think that’s very mature, very responsible.
"As a leader, knowing that these players look up to him, that they’re going to have to be in the trenches with him at national team camps and obviously there’s friendships there. And so for him to do that shows that he’s recognizing that he has a responsibility on his shoulders to be a leader.”
▪ On US players who competed in this week’s Champions League matches, including Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Sergino Dest (FC Barcelona), Horvath (Club Brugge), Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), and Pulisic.
“The confidence and swagger that they’re playing with, it’s pretty impressive. I think that the generation before mine and my generation, we had a couple guys sprinkled into the Champions League and, obviously, that’s a big deal. It’s a big deal for any active player, let alone an American player to be competing in Champions League.
"But for our guys not to just be sitting on the bench but to be competing, to be playing well, to be counted on by their clubs, yeah, I definitely sense something different in this generation. I think this generation, rightly so, see these opportunities and say, no, I belong here, you know? Not just thankful to be here, I belong here. I want to etch my name in these competitions, in the history of what this means.”
▪ Howard was in goal and the US was coached by Arena when it was eliminated on the final day of the CONCACAF Hexagonal during 2018 World Cup qualifying.
“Bruce Arena, probably the greatest manager in US soccer history. His résumé speaks for itself. He was handed a mountain to climb. Very, very difficult to have success in the Hex when you lose your first two games.
"So, again, we did have a very, very good year under Bruce. He came in, he steered the ship after what was just a disaster under Jurgen Klinsmann for a long time. And then, unfortunately, we just left ourselves at the end, given the start we had, we left ourselves too much to do.
"Again, we should have gotten something from, and qualified for, the World Cup. We ultimately didn’t, and that falls on the players' shoulders. Bruce did a great job of righting a ship and making sure that everybody had attention to detail and knew what the goal and the plan was.
"And no surprise that he’s having success everywhere he goes. Bruce is a guy who players love to play for. He simplifies the game, lets you know your role. He demands that you do that and you do it well and then, ultimately, if you’re performing for Bruce, you’ll be on the field.”
▪ On the chances for the US to advance to the 2022 World Cup:
“They better qualify. It’s heartbreaking when you don’t. Don’t want to experience that again as a fan or for US soccer.
"Look, I say it pretty boldly, I think this generation of players is clearly the most talented group of players that this country’s ever seen, front to back. We just talked about playing at big clubs in Europe, playing major minutes on teams in MLS, playing in Champions League. These players have got it all. They’re a young group. They’re growing together; it seems like there’s a lot of chemistry.
"So my thought, my hope is that they will absolutely qualify. But again, we know that there are dangers in CONCACAF and going away from home and always being sought after to be beaten. And it’s different pressures, and so they will have to focus when they fly in from Champions League and clubs all around Europe. Get buckled down in terms of what [coach] Gregg Berhalter wants from this team and then go execute, and you’ve got to do that for quite a long time. So, I think they can.”
▪ Liverpool, which meets Sheffield United on Saturday, lost only three Premier League games last season. But in their last two, the Reds sustained a 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa, then lost Virgil Van Dijk to a knee injury in a 2-2 tie with Everton.
“What Jurgen Klopp has asked of the team over the last two seasons has been just incredible, the work rate and pace at which they press and the dogged — is really, really impressive.
"But has it taken its toll? Do the injuries start to mount up? There’s a question about that. They’ve conceded a bunch of goals this season. My question is, have teams worked out their high line? How do you bypass the pressure and play beyond the high line and expose them?
"Obviously, it was nearly impossible to expose them because of Virgil Van Dijk. I wondered whether Klopp would drop the line but, again, that goes against the pressing principle. So, really interesting conundrum, tactically, for Liverpool.”
▪ Howard expects Fabinho to replace Van Dijk, with Thiago Alcantara taking over in midfield.
“It does change the shape just a little bit. I’m looking forward to seeing the answers, because I don’t know if they can retain the title doing what they’re doing right now.”
▪ Everton, which visits Southampton on Sunday, leads the Premier League after five games.
“There’s no luck involved there. Money in and of itself doesn’t buy you success, and I think sometimes the mistake is just throw the money at it and it’ll happen.
"When you go through a lot of players and managers, the next manager comes in, he wants to get rid of the old players and all that kind of stuff. So that’s been about four years to get it right.
"When I say get it right, clearly Carlo Ancelotti is the right choice for Everton Football Club. He’s a wonderful person. He’s coached in the biggest games, the biggest players. He’ll be unfazed by anything that’ll be thrown his way this season.
"The money clearly has been better spent.
"I believe these are players who believe in the manager, who want to come and wear the shirt proudly. The one standout for me, which wasn’t bought in the transfer window, was Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and I think that speaks to the greatness of Ancelotti, right? I mean, he can’t stop scoring; he scores in every different way. He’s been absolutely sensational.”
▪ On dealing with racial stereotypes regarding goalkeepers:
“We had a stigma here with American football and quarterbacks. They talked about quite often how Black quarterbacks weren’t as cerebral as the white quarterbacks, they were more athletic at times. It seems like there’s a familiar chord there with goalkeeping, as well.
"But I like the fact that more Black goalkeepers are breaking through those barriers. Because it is a tough position, that lends itself to raw, natural athletic ability, high intelligence, being able to read the game, good communication, leadership.
"There’s been some really good goalkeepers coming through, showing they can do that, and probably have been for a long time, just haven’t gotten the opportunity.
"As for me, I personally never felt in my time in Europe the weight of racial equality or abuse. Obviously, I played in games where there was that type of message going out. Going into a European game knowing that an English player had been racially abused on a national break.
“But just being aware and having conversations with my teammates and captains, and saying, ‘hey, if this happens, we walk off. Forget what FIFA and UEFA says, forget their laws, their laws are bogus; we have to make a stand.' That was happening way before where we are right now.”