For a man who’s trained himself to forget everything — often seconds after it has happened — there’s one goal Tim Howard will never forget.
He hadn’t even graduated high school when he played his first professional soccer game. Howard, then 18, was in goal for the North Jersey Imperials, the developmental squad for Major League Soccer’s MetroStars, and his team had just scored to go up 1-0.
An excited Howard sprinted upfield, eager to congratulate his teammates, mostly grown men several years older. He didn’t make it back to the box in time, and suddenly the kickoff was booted right over his head. Stunned and helpless, the young goalkeeper watched it bounce into the net.
“All the pros looked at him like, ‘This isn’t high school. You don’t run and celebrate with us. You stay back there,’ ” said Tim Mulqueen, his longtime youth coach, mentor and the coach of that Imperials team. “I think he learned a valuable lesson about having a short memory that day.”
There were many goals after that, of course — Howard is, after all, 35 years old and has seemingly protected the U.S. national team goal forever. But many of the rest are a bit fuzzy. It’s the nature of the job: When a ball gets past a good goalkeeper, it keeps rolling forever.
Howard plays one of the most unique positions in sports. On the pitch, guarding the goal is a beautiful combination of physics and geometry. It requires power, speed, agility. But that’s not what separates the great ones. The box is about 44 yards long and 18 yards deep, but Howard is somewhere else, a Zen-like state, locked in the present.
“I think it’s something you learn over time,” Howard said. “I don’t let things sit with me now, whether they’re good or bad. I could care less. I move on. But as a young goalkeeper, that’s the hard part because it could eat away at you. I think it destroys a lot of young goalkeepers.”
Howard survived it, obviously. Years later, he’s preparing to lead the U.S. team into its knockout round game Tuesday against Belgium . A win would propel the Americans into the World Cup quarterfinals and, for Howard, add some heft to what’s already an impressive résumé.
“We’ve been watching Tim Howard play for years now,” U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez said. “We know what kind of goalkeeper he is: He’s a world-class keeper who makes great saves.”
Howard already is arguably the best man ever to stand guard over an American net, though there are greats in that conversation. Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. coach, contends that even at 35, Howard is one of the five best goalies in the game today.
“I don’t want to get caught up in that. That doesn’t matter to me,” Howard said. “That’s just opinion. I feel like I’m playing well. At 35, I feel as fit as I’ve ever been. I’m as strong as I’ve ever been. I’m seeing the game at a slower pace, which helps. . . . That’s all that’s important to me.”
The U.S match against Germany on Thursday had been over nearly two hours, and Howard, his head clean-shaven with specks of gray poking through his beard, was nearly the last one out of the locker room. There was a cooling-down period, mandatory drug-testing, and well, the veteran player just wasn’t in much of a hurry. He had been this far before, leading the Americans into the knockout round at the 2010 World Cup — but never further. What’s different?
“Between now and four years ago, I’ve played a couple hundred games for my club and country,” Howard said. “Just more experienced. I don’t really get too high or too low. I think when you have a big tournament, that’s the important thing, managing emotion.”
He joined the U.S. men’s national team in 2002 and was included on the roster at the 2006 World Cup, serving as backup to Kasey Keller. By 2007, the starting job was his, and since he has been one of the few constants around the U.S. team.
Tuesday’s game will represent Howard’s eighth World Cup start, which will push him past Tony Meola and set a U.S. record for goalkeepers.
Last week’s match with Germany marked Howard’s 103rd appearance in international competition, surpassing Keller’s record for U.S. goalkeepers.
“I never thought I would get that close,” Howard said, “let alone break it.”
The cast around him has changed.
In his seven World Cup starts, the United States has trotted out 24 starters in front of him. The defenders playing right in front of him have all turned over. What doesn’t change is Howard. Regardless of the names on the other jerseys, Howard is big — 6 feet 3 inches — he’s loud and he doesn’t stop yapping.
“He’s talking to us almost too much, it feels like,” defender Matt Besler joked. “But it’s great. I tell him I never want him to stop talking.”
The average age of the U.S. team is less than 28 years old. When Howard made his debut with the national team, seven of his current teammates hadn’t even hit their teens. The age gap isn’t that noticeable, players say, though when the team gathered together to watch Brazil play in the World Cup opener a couple of weeks ago, Howard commandeered one couch, dozing off and snapping awake between all the action.
“Timmy’s, like, a little bit older,” midfielder Jermaine Jones said, “so he has to sleep.”
“The young guys have stuck together,” Howard said. “They look after themselves very well. It’s been positive. They’re always hanging out together in the players’ lounge, waiting for each other to go down for meals. . . . I sleep a lot. I rest as much as I can.
“There will be a time for me to get wild and crazy but not now.”
Howard was always a natural athlete, a high school star who could’ve played college basketball. “A lot of people asked me, why soccer?” he said.
Those who watched him calmly protect the net knew why. Even at a young age, despite living with Tourette’s syndrome, Howard had that innate sense, an ability to live second to second. Howard was only 12 years old when he first met Mulqueen. The athleticism was clear, and so was Howard’s maturity.
“He was always very calm about his approach,” said Mulqueen, who also coached Howard on youth national squads. “Don’t mistake it: He’s fiercely competitive. But he channels it in the right moments. The one thing that we would always talk about: onto the next play, onto the next action, onto the next game. It was a recurring theme with Tim.”
Howard skipped college and was named the top goalkeeper in MLS at 22.
It was clear he was destined for big things.
Manchester United secured his rights in 2003, and Howard was suddenly guarding the goal for one of the most storied franchises in sports. There were times when facing the unforgiving British press and a demanding fan base was as challenging as anything on the pitch. But as with all things, Howard never let it get to him.
He controlled only that which was within the reach of his outstretched arms. Balls would trickle in, but what separated Howard from so many others was his response. He would tighten his gloves, keep barking instructions at his teammates and shake it off. In his head, a new play had already begun.
“Goalkeeping is instinctual,” Howard said. “There’s not a lot of tape you can watch. You just have to go with your gut.”
Howard came to the national team in 2002 as an incredible shot-stopper, but he has grown into a complete goalkeeper, a man who can do the little things to help his team, even if he spends most of the match confined to a small box.
He bided his team behind Keller, balancing patience with hunger.
Still today he’s careful not to relax too much, even though his standing with the team is as secure as anyone’s. After the U.S. team advanced past the group stage of this tournament, Klinsmann reiterated that for the older players, any World Cup game could be their last.
“That’s not lost on me,” Howard said. “I already knew that. I think most of the older guys kind of appreciate the enormity of the tournament and the situation.”
Goalkeepers tend to enjoy longer soccer lives, though. In April, Everton, his Premier League employer since 2006, extended his contract through 2018.
That’s also the year of the next World Cup. Howard will be 39 years old then. He offers no promises or predictions about the 2018 Cup. He’s locked in the present.
For others, it’s hard to imagine someone else protecting the U.S. goal, especially considering Howard’s unique studied skillset, which is sharp as ever.
“For him, the competition is like a drug,” Mulqueen said. “He needs his fix of competitiveness. You can’t get that anywhere else but between the lines. I think he’ll keep this going as long as his body allows him to.”
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