STANFORD -- Veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard remembers when he was the one looking for leadership heading into the World Cup.
Now the roles have changed.
The vocal Everton stalwart, who will earn his 100th cap if he plays all three games in the group stage in Brazil, is one of the national team's more savvy hands, along with DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan.
Players say they will be leaning on Howard in Brazil.
"I think that's what experienced players are meant to do," Howard said Monday. "I was the young kid one time. I would ride the coattails of the senior players and let them kind of drive it . . . There's a few of us here who have been around, Michael (Bradley), 'Beas,' Landon, and myself. We are going to have to lead the group, whether we like it or not."
Howard, 34, of New Jersey, expressed confidence in a young back line lacking World Cup game experience. Center back Clarence Goodson of the Earthquakes was on the U.S. squad in South Africa, but did not play.
"We've had a good qualifying campaign," Howard said optimistically. "Defensively, we're pretty rock solid. Our numbers say that. We'll have to find out. It's sink or swim time when you get to the World Cup. There's no guesswork now. There's nothing to speculate on. We don't really know."
The inexperience factor won't make Howard any more vocal on the field, he assures.
"I don't think that's possible to become more vocal," he said with a laugh. "It just keeps me more in tune, trying to help guys out as much as I can. If I give them too much information, they'll tell me. If it's not enough, they'll tell me that too."
The No. 1 American keeper since 2009, Howard followed Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel as U.S. national team netminders who made their mark in England.
Backup goalkeeper Brad Guzan of Aston Villa gives Howard high marks for his extended career with Everton, after also excelling with Manchester United in the English Premier League.
"He's been fantastic," Guzan said of Howard. "It speaks volumes about someone to spend most of their career in England, especially in the Premier League because it's such a tough league. Consistency is such a big factor in all that. Hats off to him because it's not easy. You see so many players that go over there maybe for a year or two and they come back then. It's not ideal for them. . . . He is one of those guys that made it work and persevered through the tough times."
With his spot on the World Cup team secure, Howard doesn't plan on sailing through camp. That's not his style.
"I've never paced myself, unfortunately," he said. "Even when I get offered the chance to take a game off, it's just not in my makeup. I'll take days off when I retire."
Though the 2010 U.S. World Cup team had more experience, Howard believes the current squad is slightly stronger and that its inexperience might work to its benefit against Ghana, Portugal and Germany in group play.
"Guys don't actually know what to expect,' Howard said. "They're just hungry and want to go for it. We've got some good playmakers. Obviously, we know who they are. Collectively, this is a very strong team, a very athletic team."
Asked about facing superstar Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal in the second game, Howard laid out the best blueprint he could muster.
"With a guy like him you always have to be aware because he plays on the break for his club team and for his national team," Howard said. "He's always looking to get the ball. The danger is every player he plays with is looking to get him ball, and so you always have to know where he is and try to bottle him up if you can. It's a good mental exercise. It keeps you focused."
Howard said coach Jurgen Klinsmann always challenges people, players and staff, taking them out of their comfort zone. Moreover, Klinsmann doesn't figure to be awed by the World Cup scene.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to kind of read off his demeanor," Howard said. "In those big moments, two minutes before you leave the dressing room and the music starts playing. Those are the kind of moments that define a team going into a game."
"The path he has taken to get here is incredible," Donovan said.
"Every time during this process, generally you get an attacking player who hits form at the right time. And right now in training, in the games, everything he does is turning to gold. You can tell, he is confident, he is fit. He is one of the top two or three fittest guys here."
"For me personally, I liken it to 2002," Donovan said. "In 2006 and 2010 I knew for the most part, unless I was awful, that I was going to make the team. This time it's more similar to '02, when I wasn't sure. In that way, it's as competitive for me as it's been in a long time."
The Los Angeles Galaxy forward/midfielder, one of greatest players America has produced, doesn't doubt his ability.
"I think I'm deserving to be part of the squad," he added. "But I have to prove that. And I have to earn that."
Howard has no doubts.
"It's an easy equation," he said. "If Landon's on the field, he's one of our top two or three players."
Then he added, "That's my opinion. Whether that means anything or not, I don't know."
Staff Writer Elliott Almond contributed to this report.