Howard anchors USA’s World Cup hopes

It will take more than a little pain to sideline Tim Howard.

U.S. national team and Everton fans have known this for years. The world saw this on Saturday night.

The American goalkeeper took an Emile Heskey cleat to the chest during the United States’ 1-1 draw with England in a clash that left Howard writhing in pain and led to his potential replacements scrambling to warm up. Marcus Hahnemann and Brad Guzan are quality backups, but losing Howard would have been devastating for a variety of reasons.

You have Howard’s experience playing with the U.S. defense. Then there is his flat-out incredible shot-stopping ability, and perhaps most importantly, there is the unwavering consistency with which Howard dominates his position.

How reliable is Howard? Go ask a U.S. national team fan the last bad game Howard had.

Keep asking. We’ll wait.

Since taking over as the United States starting goalkeeper after the 2006 World Cup cycle, Howard has not only been the most consistently excellent player on the national team, but also an integral part of every major result against top competition.

Here is a list of Howard’s best moments during that time:

2007- Gold Cup Final: Made a point-blank save in closing moments to help Americans beat Mexico, 2-1.

2008 – Friendly against Argentina: Delivers arguably his best performance ever to stop the No. 1 team in the world at the time and keep them scoreless in a 0-0 draw.

2009 – World Cup Qualifying against Mexico: He records the shutout and even draws a red card on Mexican captain Rafael Marquez in a gutsy performance.

2009 – Confederations Cup semifinal against Spain: Registered eight saves in helping Americans stun the No. 1 ranked Spanish team to reach Confederations Cup final. The performance went a long way toward helping Tim Howard earn top goalkeeper honors for the tournament.

2010 – World Cup against England: Howard shakes of brutal challenge to earn Man of the Match honors with several quality saves to give Americans vital draw with England.

How does he do it? Howard’s cat-like reflexes, aggressiveness in the penalty area, ability to kick the ball effectively with both feet, vocal presence and ability to organize the defense make him one of the better goalkeepers in the world and one of this World Cup’s best netminders.

Howard has shown steady improvement over the years as he has established himself as one of the top goalkeepers in the Premier League. He has carried over the confidence earned in being Everton’s unquestioned No. 1 to the national team, where his leadership and poise has helped boost the defense to impressive heights during his tenure.

“He’s just that rock that you can depend on,” U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu said of Howard. “We’re hoping he continues to be that throughout the tournament.

“For a defender, you don’t want to get beat, but if that happens, you know that you have Tim back there and you know he’s going to give three hundred percent to keep a goal from being scored.

“In my eyes he’s top five in the world.”

That quality is what made Howard’s health such a concern even though backup Marcus Hahnemann is an accomplished goalkeeper in his own right. While Hahnemann could be a good replacement, he would be hard-pressed to deliver the presence and comfort level with the defense that Howard has developed over the course of the past four years.

Howard acknowledged that he was concerned for his health at the time, but tests done on Monday revealed that Howard is ready to play.

“I was just trying to breathe, and it was tough to breathe, I was going to give myself five or ten minutes if I could to recover,” Howard said of potentially leaving the England match. “(Coming out) crossed my mind. I wasn’t just going to limp off. I was going to give it a few minutes and I knew if I could get to halftime I could get some medicine."

It isn’t the first time Howard shook off an injury to deliver a result, nor is it the first example of Howard‘s dependability. In 2007, Howard overcame dislocated fingers to stay in a 4-2 United States loss to Brazil, while he played all 38 matches for Everton this past season.

With fears about broken ribs or a shoulder injury put to rest, Howard can now get ready to play his second career World Cup match on Friday against Slovenia. The Americans need a victory to put themselves in a good position heading into the final group game against Algeria, and Howard should be in net, ready to add to his impressive string of results as the USA’s No. 1.

As Howard showed against England, keeping him off the field is just as tough as beating him for a goal.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for covering the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer.