Tim Howard did not always like what Jurgen Klinsmann was doing to Howard's closest friends. He actually hated it. One by one, all of the veteran players on the United States national team had their moments with Klinsmann, the coach from Germany, who had made clear since the moment he was hired in 2011 that history and past performance meant nothing to him.
Klinsmann dropped Carlos Bocanegra, the former captain. He benched Michael Bradley. He denigrated Clint Dempsey. With Landon Donovan, he pretty much did all three.
All the while, Howard, the longtime goalkeeper, played the role of supportive teammate and steady hand.
"In football, the coach is the judge and jury, and I knew what he was doing," Howard said over coffee in Manchester, England, this spring. "When you're trying to make a larger point, you have to do with bigger players, and that's what Jurgen did. I saw it for what it was, even if I didn't like it."
Howard shrugged. "I think three and a half years down the line, we're all where we want to be," he said.
They surely are. On Sunday, Howard and the United States will face Portugal in Manaus, a city in the heart of the Amazon about 215 miles south of the Equator. If it is an unlikely destination, it is no stranger than the stakes that the Americans face: After universally negative projections about their chances in Group G, not to mention dire predictions about how the heavy travel load they would endure during the opening stage would affect them, the Americans need only a victory in this game to guarantee passage to the knockout round. Even a tie would put them in an excellent position after Monday's opening victory against Ghana.
It is a heady place to be, but it comes with challenges. Portugal was embarrassed by Germany in its opening game, 4-0. While it is surely weakened without injured starters Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almedia and will also miss Pepe, the suspended defender, the sting of the blowout at the hands of the Germans will linger. Portugal also has Cristiano Ronaldo, the reigning world player of the year and a threat - even with a gimpy knee - to score at any time.
That is where Howard comes in. Klinsmann has focused most of his attention over the past three years on changing the United States' style of play, urging his players to push forward more and be comfortable in possession while overhauling the American back line. Part of his ability to do both is his faith in Howard, who is at the top of the spine of the U.S. team.
Howard was a backup to Kasey Keller at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. In 2010, in South Africa, he was the starter and was named man of the match in his World Cup debut, a 1-1 draw against England. In the third game of the group stage, his save (from a point-blank shot) and inspired outlet pass halfway down the field started the sequence that led to Donovan's seminal goal in stoppage time against Algeria. In the years since, Howard's shot-stopping prowess and reflexes have not waned.
Unlike his fellow veterans, Howard has a status with the national team that has never been seriously challenged. His backup, Brad Guzan, has become a top goalkeeper for England's Aston Villa, but Howard, who has played for Everton since 2006, is the epitome of what Klinsmann wants in his players: He plays in Europe, has no particular interest in returning to Major League Soccer and is committed to seeking the highest level of competition possible.
Howard was happy for Dempsey and Bradley when they signed big-money contracts to return to MLS, but neither move made him hope for a similar payday. He recently signed a contract extension with Everton that will keep him Merseyside until he is 39, and it is expected that deal will take him to retirement.
"We all have our own list of priorities in terms of what matters in our careers, and who's to say what should be No. 1?" Howard said. "I feel like I could do another four years in the Premier League, and competition is important to me."
At the moment, though, his attention is on the national team. Klinsmann tried a variety of formations on the back line, finally settling - it seems - on Fabian Johnson, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron and DaMarcus Beasley. As the unit worked on its chemistry, Howard was the taskmaster, shrieking directions and pulling the strings from his position near the goal.
Besler, who expects to play Sunday despite a minor hamstring injury, said he took comfort in hearing Howard's barking commands. The only time he gets worried, Besler said, is when Howard goes quiet.
"I tell him I never want him to stop talking," Besler said. "Even if I know what to do, he's still telling me what to do, and everything kind of starts with him."
It will be that way again Sunday. The heat will be stifling. Ronaldo will be threatening. Klinsmann will be demanding, pushing his players to seize the moment.
Howard will be at the back, shouting and directing and jumping on any ball that comes near. It is where he has been for so long now, that precious rarity under Klinsmann: a player who has never left.
© 2014 New York Times News Service