Tim Howard says U.S. sabbatical and return to MLS restored his form

Tim Howard believes his yearlong sabbatical away from the United States and move to Major League Soccer helped him to regain his top form this year.

Howard asked U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann for a year away from the national team following the 2014 World Cup. Upon returning, he spent the past year in a platoon situation with Brad Guzan, but he was finally named the first choice ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifier against Mexico.

The 37-year-old told ESPN FC that he believes the time away helped him to know that he still had a passion for representing his country.

Asked if the time away helped, Howard said: "I like to think so. It's always good when you can get a little bit of a break. But also, you're hungry for each and every game.

"But also I think there was an opportunity for me to step away and appreciate the fact that I still had a fire burning."

Howard had also lost his starting job as Everton goalkeeper in the early months of 2016 but has played well since moving to the Colorado Rapids in July.

His heroics in Sunday's penalty shootout in the MLS playoffs helped the Rapids advance to the Western Conference final, and Howard said returning to MLS also gave him a new perspective.

"The change of scenery was good for me, to go to Colorado and be asked to be a part of a pretty young group -- who was already doing very well when I got there," Howard said. "It's been fun for me, it's kind of opened my eyes, it's given me a new lease. It's been pretty good so far, we'll keep it going."

Howard is the oldest player on the U.S. squad, and though it also features five players 21 or younger, the goalkeeper said it wasn't difficult to be a leader to such worldly players.

"We have some really solid core group of players who have experience, and I think what's really exciting is that our young guys are gaining experience," he said. "We got guys playing in Europe, playing in the Champions League. So even though they're young, they're not scared, they're not afraid.

"So for me as an older player, that's great. You don't have to sit down, have to have conversations with these guys. Just make sure you're part of a group that keeps the tempo in training very high, keeps guys focused and then the rest of it takes care of itself."