Tim Howard could be forgiven for not wanting to think about the United States' 2018 World Cup campaign today. The same goes for United States men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Both men were visibly wrung out by the Americans' 2-1 loss to Belgium in extra time in the round of 16 in Brazil. Especially Howard, whose transcendent performance kept the Americans on even terms against the Belgians through regulation time.
Without Howard, the Americans might well have lost by three, four or more goals in the first 90 minutes. That is why Howard must come back in 2018.
The Americans' performance in front of Howard was, well, not very good. Patriotic American supporters can rhapsodize about stuff like guts and heart all they like. The numbers in this case do not lie.
"Howard had 11 saves at the end of regulation after, turning away wave after wave of Belgium attacks," wrote Dan Itel for the Major League soccer website.
That was Belgium carving the Americans apart. Not Germany. Not Argentina. Not Brazil. Belgium. The Red Devils are certainly a very good team, but they are not great. The Americans made the Belgians look like Brazil's historic 1970 side.
If your keeper needs to make 11 saves in regulation against Belgium, at least a few of the 10 men in front of him are not doing their jobs.
After the Americans fly home and receive what rightly should be a welcome accorded to heroes—each of the four matches they played was entertaining and tense—Klinsmann will watch the match films again and see that he has four years to patch a lot of holes.
It is not like the Belgium match was a one-off. The Americans were never really in the game against Germany, and they were profligate in defense in the closing moments of the draw with Portugal.
Before he loads the incriminating video, though, Klinsmann should do whatever he can to convince Howard to commit to one more World Cup in 2018.
Howard is already on record as saying that his time playing at this level is short. "I would pretty much take it to the bank that I won't be playing past 40. There are other things I want to achieve in life, other things that I want to do," Howard said recently per a Fox Soccer report.
The contract extension Howard recently signed at Everton will carry him through to the end of the 2017-18 Premier League season, at which point he will be 39. Hopefully for Klinsmann and the American supporters, Howard timed the end of that contract to deliver him into one last World Cup run.
There is a nucleus of young talent for Klinsmann to build around. Julian Green and John Brooks had fleeting but special moments of quality in Brazil. DeAndre Yedlin played more minutes than either of them and acquitted himself very well in the tournament.
Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler project to be part of the back line with Yedlin and Timmy Chandler in 2018. The midfield is reasonably sound with Michael Bradley (despite his poor 2014 World Cup), Mix Diskerud and Alejandro Bedoya likely joining Green.
And Jozy Altidore may already be burning for the chance to shine for the Americans in 2018 after his 2014 World Cup ended almost before it began.
The Americans figure to be a better side in 2018 through the improvement of the players returning and the replacement of some of the marginal talents Klinsmann had to rely on this time around with younger, more skilled players.
For Klinsmann, though, it should all start at the back. Howard proved against Belgium that even in the World Cup, an elite goalkeeper can make a pretender contend.
Just imagine what Howard might do in 2018 with a little bit more help in front of him.
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