Howard cornerstone of US team – and envy of others

The lone fan in the blue U.S. Soccer T-shirt looked woefully out

of place surrounded by dozens of England supporters – until he

turned around.

Of course. Tim Howard’s name was emblazoned across his

shoulders.

At home and abroad, Howard’s athleticism, unshakable confidence

and leadership have won the Everton goalkeeper rave reviews. And

despite being “in agony” from bruised – maybe broken – ribs, he

made six saves to seal the Americans’ 1-1 draw with England on

Saturday night at the World Cup.

“He’s an outstanding success,” Manchester United manager Alex

Ferguson, who brought Howard to the English Premier League in 2003,

said recently. “We’re delighted, because I love the lad. Good

lad.”

U.S. coach Bob Bradley said Sunday that Howard would be

re-evaluated after his full-speed collision with Emile Heskey’s

shoes. However, he expects him to play Friday against Slovenia,

which took the lead in Group C by beating Algeria on Sunday.

“He did a great job of taking a tough hit, and staying in it

and playing really well,” Bradley said. “… When you see the way

Timmy handled himself after the collision last night, you’d

certainly expect he’ll be on the field again.”

Goalkeeper has been a source of strength during the U.S. team’s

resurgence in the last 25 years. The hand-eye coordination American

kids develop playing baseball, football and basketball make them

naturals in goal, where cat-quick reflexes and sure hands are a

must.

But there’s a certain steeliness that sets great keepers apart

from merely very good ones, and few are stronger than Howard,

clearly the cornerstone of the U.S. team.

Howard’s parents divorced when he was a child, though his father

remained an active part of his life. He was still in grade school

when he was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological

disorder that causes tics and abrupt, involuntary sounds and

utterances.

It was in sports that Howard found his comfort zone. He played

basketball and soccer growing up, and excelled at both. His high

school basketball team made the state finals, and he was later

pursued by the Harlem Globetrotters.

But it was soccer where he really shined.

He was playing on U.S. youth teams before he could drive, and

was 19 when he made his debut with Major League Soccer. In his

third full season, he was voted MLS goalkeeper of the year, still

the youngest player to win the honor.

Two years later, Howard was on his way to England to play for

Manchester United.

“There’s challenges flying in everywhere. It’s nonstop

action,” Howard said. “It’s end to end, and that’s what makes it

different than other leagues. For me, it’s hardened me. I think I

was criticized a lot when I was over there and I bounced back. I

feel like I was able to take my lumps and get better, so I’ve

definitely become hardened and more resolute.”

He had little choice.

After a spectacular debut season with the Red Devils – he was

the Premier League’s goalkeeper of the year – he found himself

stuck behind Edwin van der Sar at Manchester. He was loaned to

Everton in 2006 and has blossomed there, developing into one of the

league’s top goalkeepers.

“To go to Everton and see how everybody loves Tim Howard and

how they show him so much respect, it was pretty amazing. That was

pretty cool,” said U.S. teammate Jozy Altidore, who spent last

season on loan at Hull.

Howard is a commanding presence in goal, and not simply because

of his size (listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds). With his shaved

head and a ferocity that is palpable, the sight of him charging

forward is enough to make any opponent hesitate.

His teammates aren’t immune to his intensity, either. Howard is

constantly shouting instructions at fellow Americans or screaming

at them to make corrections. There is little time – or room – for

niceties in the chaos of a game, and time and again Saturday night

the cameras caught him in full-throated roar.

Asked about Steven Gerrard’s goal just four minutes into the

game, Howard was unsparing.

“I was pretty annoyed because the marking was a little too

lax,” he said. “Particularly for the beginning of a game when

you’re supposed to be really up for it.”

Such bluntness is easily forgiven by his teammates. Unlike some

countries – England, this means you – the Americans know they’re in

good hands whenever Howard is around. He doesn’t have bad games –

“Tim’s just Mr. Consistent,” Clint Dempsey said – and has bailed

them out more times than they can count.

The Americans have won 31 of his 52 appearances, including last

year’s upset of top-ranked Spain in the Confederations Cup, and

advanced to their first final at a FIFA event. Howard was so

stellar that he was awarded the Golden Glove as the cup’s best

keeper.

“In these tournaments, you need a good goalkeeper,” Steve

Cherundolo said. “So we’re very, very happy Tim’s on our

side.”

And he is as tough as any athlete, in any sport.

In the 29th minute Saturday, the sprinting Heskey slammed into

Howard, the studs of his shoes catching the American squarely in

the chest. Simply watching the collision produced cringes, and

Howard writhed in pain on the ground for several minutes. He

grimaced several times when play finally resumed and needed a

painkiller at halftime, yet time and again he saved the Americans

in the second half, at one point leaping to punch a shot by Frank

Lampard back and over the crossbar.

“I’ll be even more sore the next couple days, but maybe it’ll

get me out of training,” Howard said after the game.