Tim Howard talks USMNT, Reyna's rise, Pulisic and how MLS has changed over the past 25 years

Tim Howard is five months removed from playing his last game, but his ties to soccer are as strong as ever.

Last weekend, Howard returned to Goodison Park -- the famous home venue of his beloved Everton -- for the first time since leaving the club in 2016, and he recently became an international ambassador for the Toffees.

The former U.S. goalkeeper is also going full speed ahead in his new role as the sporting director of USL Championship side Memphis 901, who open the 2020 campaign this weekend at home to Indy Eleven.

His long tenure with the U.S. men's national team and in MLS also leave him with no shortage of opinions about the rest of the domestic game, be it the United States men's national team, Giovanni Reyna's breakthrough with Borussia Dortmund, or the progress MLS has made as it embarks on its 25th season.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

ESPN: What are your thoughts on how the U.S. men's national team is doing at the moment?

Tim Howard: Not qualifying for the World Cup, that was massively disappointing, but you have to dust yourselves [off] -- no one will feel sorry for you -- get on with it, and then the next opportunity you get, you take advantage of it. That's what this next year-plus looks like. It's exciting that we can start again, put that process behind us and hopefully get ourselves in a good position.

ESPN: There have been a lot of comments about the style that the team is trying to play. What are your thoughts there?

TH: I think Gregg Berhalter is a very good manager. He's the right man to take this team to the World Cup. And so I think anytime you come in and change systems, there's going to be growing pains. You have to live with them and you have to keep fighting through them. Gregg is someone who is confident in his own coaching abilities and teaching abilities. I think that's what makes a great coach. But the proof is in the pudding. None of us ever have a crystal ball. But again, I think part of that process as you get into the really big moments when the light shines the brightest -- which we know is World Cup qualifying -- you have to go through those speed bumps along the way to kind of get what it is you're looking for.

ESPN: What do you make of Giovanni Reyna's ascension with Borussia Dortmund, breaking through like he has in recent weeks?

TH: He's got a hell of a pedigree. His mom, Danielle, was a hell of a player. She tore it up in college, and clearly his father [Claudio] is one of the greatest players to ever pull a U.S. shirt on, and as a captain. I think Gio has got some pretty big shoes to fill, but I don't think he cares about that. He's a phenomenal kid. He clearly loves his football. He's uber-talented. He just seems to me like the kid who I wouldn't be afraid to heap too much pressure on. I think with some players you are, but with him it seems like he's like a fish to water. He loves it. He gets in there. He's obviously at a very good club, Borussia Dortmund. We know what that did for Christian Pulisic and his development and Gio seems to be on a similar trajectory. I love to sit back as a fan and text him and tell him how great I think he is. But it's fun. I think it's fun to watch as an American who has played for the national team, that there's possibly another star coming through.

ESPN: Speaking of Pulisic, what are your thoughts on his first year in the Premier League and how concerned are you about his health? It seems like he's he has a tendency to suffer from soft tissue injuries.

TH: In term of the ins and outs of the injury, I think when you're a top-performing player -- on both fronts, internationally and club -- you're asking a lot of your body. You're asked to play big games every week, sometimes midweek, and then the travel. We know how that works. Muscle injuries are the biggest part of being a footballer. What I make of his first season, after a slow start when he wasn't in the manager's plans, he smashed the door down and made himself probably the first name on the selection sheet and that's a credit to Christian as a player, and obviously his resilience as a person. Once he gets himself fully healthy, there's no reason to think that won't continue.

ESPN: What's your take on the state of the American goalkeeping? Obviously, Zack Steffen has been in the Bundesliga this year [with Fortuna Dusseldorf], and he's also nursing an injury at the moment. But overall, how are you assessing that position?

TH: I've said all along, Zack has got all the right tools. He's also injured at the moment, but he's [acquitted] himself well in his first year in the Bundesliga. From the reports and what I've seen he's been fantastic. All the reports out of Germany said he was beloved there, so that's a that's a heck of a good start. Sean Johnson being in the mix and Brad Guzan, I think there's some really solid goalkeeping there. It's certainly not a big issue for me that causes any worry or concern. I think when we look at the team overall, the goalkeeping seems to be in safe hands.

ESPN: Switching to MLS, obviously the 25th season is starting, and you're a guy who got a lot of professional starts in that league, what do you make of how far MLS has come and the way it's grown?

TH: You and I have talked about how it's grown and how the fan bases have become crazier and more passionate; how everyone's stadium seems to get more start-of-the-art. I think we've come into a new era. With David Beckham coming in as an owner, I genuinely think this is going to catapult MLS to new heights. It's one thing when we can attract Wayne Rooney and Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Beckham as players. Now that [Beckham] is in an ownership role, that takes on a whole new meaning in a very, very positive light. I was excited for all the new teams, new stadiums. I'm looking forward to getting to a bunch of games this year because I have a little bit more time on my hands -- not much, but a little bit. That will be great.

ESPN: From your early days in MLS, how minor league was it being a player in the league then?

TH: I can remember being able to count the fans in the stands by counting each section. Playing in NFL stadiums, it had to grow and you could go into any away stadium and people would cheer you and ask for your autograph. They were just happy to have soccer. Now, it's the opposite, which is brilliant. You're hated, you're despised, people say things to you that can't repeat or if you do you end up getting suspended like myself [laughs]. But it's good, it's passionate. I remember recently walking into Atlanta and Seattle and saying to the younger guys that this is what a proper football [stadium] is like. Soak it up. Lap it up. It doesn't get much better than this, I don't care where you play in the world.

ESPN: How is your new endeavor as sporting director of USL Championship side Memphis 901 going?

TH: I love it. It's something that I thought I would enjoy, I wouldn't enjoy being a manager, I wouldn't enjoy being a coach. I think I identified that early on. Coaching is really difficult. But one of the things I do enjoy is the competitive nature of having the ability to hand-pick the head coach, hand-pick -- with the head coach -- the players, speaking to agents, and getting deals done and being able to recruit players to come play for our club. It's something that I thoroughly enjoy. I thought I would enjoy it but when you actually sink your teeth into it, and not leaving the office until 7 or 8 at night, I enjoy it. It's a labor of love but I enjoy it.

ESPN: Getting back to the U.S. for a second, it does seem like more guys are breaking through in Europe with Weston McKennie, and Reyna and Pulisic. Do you think that's a good thing overall for the national team? You obviously played in Europe and in MLS, I mean, what do you make of that development?

TH: Whether it's going to Europe or playing in MLS, every player has to make the right decision for themselves. When you choose to do one or the other, I think the great thing for the young players is we [as a national team program] have shown the ability to bring young players through MLS and then make an impact on the national team stage, and the players who go abroad, they don't get too lost in the shuffle. They go to pretty big clubs, make an imprint there and then come back to the national team. For each individual player it's different, but I do like the fact that at the moment, which I don't think was the case when I was starting out, you can't really lose. If you choose MLS, the sky is the limit, and if you choose to go abroad it's the same thing. The great thing about it is that the one team that benefits is the national team.