It was a refrain heard many times from the locals playing soccer with tourists on Natal’s Ponte Negra beach these last two weeks. “Oh, Americano! Ir no gol!”
Even for those who did not speak a word of Portuguese, the message was easy enough to understand. “Hey, American! Get in goal!”
Those words were delivered in good humour, but they hinted at an underlying truth. For all the strides that the USA have made lately – finishing top of Concacaf’s final qualifying stage before surviving the World Cup’s group of death – the nation’s soccer team is still best-known globally for one thing: producing a steady stream of brilliant goalkeepers.
By at least two measures, Tim Howard is the greatest of them all. As of Thursday’s game against Germany, he is now the most capped goalkeeper in US soccer history – with 103 appearances. His 55 wins are also a record in his position.
But we all know the line about lies, damn lies and statistics; context must be applied. From 2007 to 2012, until the emergence of Brad Guzan at Aston Villa, Howard had very little competition for his place. His predecessor Kasey Keller, by contrast, won 101 caps despite giving up more than 80 to Brad Friedel.
Before the start of this World Cup, prominent US soccer writer Ives Galarcep opined: “There are currently three figures on the US goalkeeping Mount Rushmore
, Keller, [Tony] Meola and Brad Friedel.” Three games into the tournament, Howard seems closer than ever to carving his bust alongside theirs.
Although yet to keep a clean sheet in Brazil, Howard has impressed in every appearance. Against Ghana, he made four saves to help the USA win despite being outplayed. Against Portugal he was named man of the match despite conceding twice.
Even in defeat by Germany, Howard was solid – making seven saves. Some will ask whether he could have done better in the build-up to Thomas Müller’s goal, when he pushed a Per Mertesacker header into the forward’s path. But Howard had hardly presented his opponent with a gilt-edged opportunity. Müller did extremely well to curl his shot into the far corner from the edge of the box.
Already there are echoes of 2002, when Friedel’s saves helped carry the USA to the quarter-finals. The then Blackburn goalkeeper kept out two penalties in five games, including one against co-hosts South Korea, as the Americans secured a vital group-stage draw. He blocked a further three attempts from 10 yards or closer in that match.
Many consider that to have been the greatest US goalkeeping performance of all time, although Keller might also point to his clean sheet against Brazil at the 1998 Gold Cup. Romario, denied on a point-blank header, described it as “the greatest performance I have ever seen by a goalkeeper”.
Howard does not have quite such an iconic display on his international CV, but he has a couple that come close. He made eight saves in the 2009 Confederations Cup semi-final win over Spain, helping to end La Roja’s 35-match unbeaten run. In 2012, he denied Chicharito Hernández twice inside the last six minutes as the USA secured their first-ever win away to Mexico.
Jurgen Klinsmann is in no doubt as to his goalkeeper’s qualities, describing him in May as one of the top five in the world. The manager’s faith has never wavered – even after Guzan kept clean sheets in key qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico last year. Howard, who was going through a period of indifferent form at Everton, missed both games after fracturing bones in his back.
“In the rankings there’s no doubt about it,” said Klinsmann, nipping any succession talk in the bud. There’s Tim Howard at number one, Brad Guzan at two and then Nick Rimando at three, he said.
Not everyone agreed with Klinsmann’s decision at the time, but few would challenge it now. Howard rebounded to enjoy an excellent season at Everton leading into this World Cup, earning a contract extension through to 2018. If his athleticism has declined at 34, then it is more than made up for by leadership quality.
“One of Tim Howard’s biggest qualities is his communication,” said centre-back Matt Besler before the Germany game. “He gets the best out of everybody. Everything starts with him . . . Even if I know what to do, he’s still telling me what to do.”
Howard will have plenty more to say ahead of a last-16 clash with Belgium, three of whose players – Marouane Fellaini, Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku – he has played with at Everton.
If not, then he will have another chance to show us why the world thinks so highly of goalkeepers from the USA.
Hold your heads high America – you are now official a Big 5 Sports Country.