by Nancy Armour
JOHANNESBURG (AP)—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.
|BIG SAVE—United States goalkeeper Tim Howard makes a save during the World Cup group C soccer match between England and the United States at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa, June 12.
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 did a great job of taking a tough hit, and staying in it and playing really well,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said Sunday. “… When you see the way Timmy handled himself after the collision last night, you’d certainly expect he’ll be on the field again.”
Howard is expected to play Friday against Slovenia after U.S. team medical staff examined him Monday and decided no further tests were needed on his bruised ribs.
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 was born in North Brunswick, N.J., to Matthew Howard, an African-American, and Esther Howard, a native of Hungary. His parents divorced when he was three years old, and Howard lived with his mother, a project manager for a cosmetics distributor. His father, a long-distance truck driver for a health care firm, nonetheless maintained a presence in his life. It was his father, in fact, who was determined to get Howard and his brother, Chris, involved in sports. Before the two could walk, he bought them equipment for various sports to see which games they preferred. Tim showed a preference for basketball and soccer.
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,” said U.S. teammate Jozy Altidore.
Howard is a commanding presence in goal, and not simply because of his size (listed at 6-3 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.
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.