Howard and Donovan comparisons can only go so far
As a testament to Landon Donovan’s influence, even breaks from the national team are now being judged by his standard. When U.S. Soccer announced Tim Howard’s hiatus from international duty, many cautioned “remember what happened to Landon.” After taking a break from soccer in early 2013, Donovan never fully regained his place in the national team. Is this a chance Howard wants to take?
As Howard knows, the risks are the same. He’ll have to play his way back into the team. There’s no assumption he’ll be ready to resume his role in Sept. 2015. Just like Donovan (and, every other player in the United States’ player pool), he’ll have impress Klinsmann with his present, not his past.
Aside from the players’ statures, that’s where the similarities stop, with the differences between Donovan and Howard proving much more interesting then their superficial commonalities. Whereas Donovan took his break in the middle of the 2014 World Cup cycle, Howard is stepping away four years from the next World Cup. While the U.S.'s all-time leading scorer temporarily stopped playing soccer entirely, Howard will continue with Everton, playing at a level of competition that can’t be replicated by the U.S.'s upcoming challenges. Though Donovan left before truly establishing his place under Jurgen Klinsmann, Howard has earned the trust of his national team boss. And whereas Donovan stepped away for an indefinite (and, ultimately, short) period of time, U.S. Soccer’s announcement included a date for Howard’s potential return.
Yet there’s still the lingering suspicion, one that enables the comparison: Can a player afford to take a break and retain his spot under Klinsmann? Donovan’s experience hints no, though he was called up for the Gold Cup, subsequent qualifiers, and the team’s pre-World Cup camp in Palo Alto. Timothy Chandler’s experience says otherwise. Amid the German-born American’s fitness and performance issues was a time where he was uncertain about his commitment to the United States. Eventually, he was welcomed back into the squad.
Maybe it’s just a case-by-case concern. Or maybe the concern doesn’t exist at all. When you’re available, you’re judged by how you can help. When, why, and with what motives you bow out may not be a defining factor.
The defining factors: The absences, and a player’s performance when they’re done. If Howard comes back at the same level he left, this won’t be Landon Donovan, part two. If he doesn’t, this could be day one of the Brad Guzan era in goal.