Saturday, April 30, 2011

Howard: "It's That Simple"

By Clemente Lisi – Tim Howard is used to high-pressure situations. He suits up for Everton every weekend against some of the best clubs on the planet and has played at the World Cup for the USA. Each time Howard puts on his gloves and gets into position to guard the goal, he knows what he has to do.

“The objective for me is to keep the ball out of the net,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

Simple it is not. Howard makes it look easy as the USA’s first-choice keeper. Howard, known for his quiet demeanor off the field, isn’t afraid to get vocal during games. Shouting at defenders and ordering them into position is a big part of his job – and he isn’t shy to do it.

“For a goalkeeper, that’s what I have to do (on the field) and the defense is a big part of that for any team,” he said.

Howard, 32, is one of the greatest goalkeepers to ever play for the National Team. The USA’s starting keeper since 2007, Howard was a key member of the team that qualified for the 2010 World Cup. In South Africa, Howard would go on to play every minute of all four of the US’s games before being eliminated by Ghana in the Round of 16. This summer, he will be expected to do the same as the National Team vies for the Gold Cup.

Although the most indelible image of the 2010 World Cup remains Landon Donovan’s stoppage time goal to beat Algeria and win its group, Howard’s saves against England in the opening game went a long way in helping the US advance. Howard also had a hand in Donovan’s goal, throwing the ball back into play that resulted in Donovan’s emotional strike. After the goal, the entire team piled up on Donovan in jubilation. The only exception was Howard.

“I just bent down. I couldn’t run. I was just too exhausted,” he recalled, a smile still taking over his face whenever he thinks back to the match.

Howard was not always the world-class shot-stopper he is today. Born in North Brunswick, NJ, Howard was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome when he was just 12. As a teen, he fell in love with basketball, but eventually took to soccer after he enrolled in a day camp. Tim Mulqueen was the first to see the potential that Howard possessed as a soccer player.

“I didn't think he was going to be a great keeper when I first saw him,” said Mulqueen, author of the book The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. “I don't think any coach can tell if a player at 12 will be great. There are too many variables yet to consider. However, he did immediately stand out because of his athletic ability. As we began to spend more time together I saw that was special and that he could be a great goalkeeper.”

By the time he was 15, Howard was already playing for the US Under-17 team. In 1997, Mulqueen, who was the goalkeeping coach for the NY/NJ MetroStars, was also named head coach of the North Jersey Imperials of the now-defunct USISL. Even before graduating from high school, Howard was playing for the Imperials. After just six games, Mulqueen told the MetroStars about Howard and he was signed as Tony Meola’s back-up.

In 1998, Howard was victorious in his MLS debut (the only game he would play that season), recording five saves in a 4-1 victory at home over the Colorado Rapids. He made eight starts for the MetroStars in 1999, compiling a 1.58 goals-against-average in a season where the hapless club won just seven games.

In 2001, Howard was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, recording four shutouts and a league-leading 146 saves. He played every minute of every MetroStars game and finished the regular season with a 1.33 GAA. Two years later, Howard caught the eye of Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson. The English club paid a $4 million transfer fee for Howard, who replaced France goalkeeper Fabian Barthez as the starter at Old Trafford. Howard’s meteoric rise included being the first American to win the FA Cup.

“I will say that if I had to pick one keeper to win me a game, it would be Tim Howard,” Mulqueen said.

In May 2006, Howard was loaned to EPL side Everton. In February 2007, Howard severed all ties with Man United and signed a contract with Everton that runs through June 2013. With Howard as Everton’s starting keeper, the EPL club rose up the standings. A club that used to fight to avoid relegation, Howard has helped transform Everton, which typically finishes in the top half of the standings.

“Everton has been a great place for me,” Howard said. “I’d like to keep playing there for as long as I can.”

At the same time, Howard has excelled for the National Team and was named the best keeper at the 2009 Confederations Cup, where the USA lost to Brazil in the final.

“We’ve earned a lot of respect over the past few years and I think the Confederations Cup and World Cup played a big part in changing perceptions,” said Howard.

In last month’s friendly at the New Meadowlands Stadium, just outside New York, Howard put together another amazing performance, holding Argentina to just one goal off of 12 shots to help the USA earn a 1-1 draw. Howard said playing near his hometown is always a big deal.

“Playing in the New York-area is always special for me,” he said. I’m from here. I grew up here. My friends are here.”

Capping off that game was Howard’s ability to keep Lionel Messi from scoring – the second time he had been able to do that in three years after holding Argentina to a scoreless draw at the old Giants Stadium in 2008.

“I just played my game, as I always do, and sometimes it works,” he said.

Mulqueen believes Howard is one of this country’s best-ever goalkeepers because of his ability to read the game.

“The first thing that makes Tim great is that he is an incredible athlete. America has never had that kind of athlete play in the goal,” he said. “Second, he is extremely competitive and wills himself and his team to succeed. I also think he has great technique and therefore is one of the top shot stoppers in the world. Finally the part that separates him from others is his ability to read the game. He makes plays look easy because he is always analyzing and eliminating where danger can come from. He has great anticipation.”

Howard, of course, is too humble to discuss where he belongs on the list of all-time greatest US goalkeepers. Instead, he said he is looking forward to returning home and playing in the Gold Cup for a chance to win a trophy and a trip to the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil.

“I love playing at home,” he said. “The moment I enjoy most is when they play the National Anthem and I get shivers down my spine.”

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