The U.S. World Cup team landed Sunday in the coastal city of Salvador, a place nicknamed “The Capital of Happiness” because of its famous street carnival and lively Afro-Brazilian music.
The Americans – and their traveling band of fans – hope to live up to the city’s motto, but it won’t be easy. They are there for Tuesday’s Round of 16 match against Belgium, and nobody on the U.S. team understands the challenge ahead better than goalkeeper Tim Howard. His teammates will be counting on his leadership and on-field instructions even more than usual because he has inside knowledge of the Belgian team.
As an 11-year veteran of the English Premier League, Howard has faced Belgian players on a weekly basis for quite some time. Twelve of the 23 players on the Belgian roster play in England, including Howard’s Everton teammate, forward Kevin Mirallas, and two former Everton teammates, floppy-haired midfielder Marouane Fellaini and striker Romelu Lukaku.
Fellaini played five years with Howard at Everton before joining Manchester United. Lukaku plays for Chelsea but spent last season on loan with Everton.
“They’re just super talented, very similar to Germany,” Howard said. “They get on the ball, they don’t really hold their position too much, which creates problems. We’ll have to have a good starting base defensively, but I also think we can do a better job pressing the ball in situations and recognizing what those triggers are.”
Despite the difficult task the Americans face, Howard, 35, approaches this do-or-die match the same way he does every match, with serenity and confidence.
That is also how he has dealt with Tourette’s syndrome since he was diagnosed in middle school.
He refuses to get rattled.
This is a guy who takes naps on the afternoons of games.
Many things have changed on the U.S. national team over the past seven years. Coach Bob Bradley was replaced by Jurgen Klinsmann. Carlos Bocanegra and Landon Donovan are gone. The uniforms changed. Even the supporters club changed names from Sam’s Army to the American Outlaws.
But one constant is Howard, the 6-foot-3 reliable goalkeeper, holding down the fort, barking out orders, making spectacular saves and keeping the Americans in games even when they’re struggling to score. He will be making his U.S.-record eighth World Cup start and will play in his 103rd game for the national team.
He has seen it all, and nothing seems to faze him.
“This is my third go-around, and between four years ago and now, I’ve played a couple hundred games for my club and country, so I’m just more experienced, don’t really get too high or too low,” Howard said. “I think when you have a big tournament, the important thing is managing emotion.”
He tries to transfer that demeanor to his defenders.
“One of Tim Howard’s biggest qualities is his communication,” U.S. defender Matt Besler said. “He gets the best out of everybody. Everything starts with him. The organization, the confidence, he’s talking to us almost too much, it feels like. But it’s great. I tell him, I never want him to stop talking. Even if I know what to do, he’s still telling me what to do, and everything kind of starts with him.”
Omar Gonzalez made his first World Cup start against Germany. He said having Howard behind him helped calm his nerves.
“Obviously, we have been watching Tim Howard play for years now, and we know what kind of goalkeeper he is,” Gonzalez said.
“He is a world-class keeper who makes great saves, and he has great communication. Having him behind us, always screaming at us and making sure we are focused and making sure we are picking up guys is great for me personally because it is always good to have someone keeping you focused, keeping you going and making sure you are seeing the field.
“In case someone does get in behind us, I have a pretty good faith that he will get a hand on it or something to be able to make a big save.”
Howard, who grew up in New Brunswick, N.J., could have pursued a basketball career. He was good at both sports, averaging 15 points per game for his high school basketball team.
But he fell in love with soccer. His career began with the New Jersey Imperials, and then he signed with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars of Major League Soccer in 1998.
After five seasons in MLS, Howard was signed by Manchester United, where he played until 2006.
He made the 2006 U.S. World Cup team and was the backup to Kasey Keller before becoming a starter in 2007. Over the years, like all great keepers, he has learned to have a very short memory.
“It’s something you learn over time,” he said. “I don’t let things sit with me now, whether they’re good or bad; I could care less. I move on. But as a young goalkeeper, that’s the hard part because it can eat away at you, and I think it destroys a lot of goalkeepers.”
Klinsmann refers to Howard as “one of the top five goalkeepers in the world.”
But Howard doesn’t buy into those types of comparisons.
“It doesn’t matter to me; that’s just opinion,” Howard said of his coach’s pronouncement. “I feel like I’m playing well. At 35, I feel as fit as I’ve ever been, as strong as I’ve ever been. I’m seeing the game at a slower pace, which helps. That’s all that’s important to me. Where I match up? At the end of the day, that’s just opinion. I feel good where I am though.”
He will feel even better if the U.S. can withstand Belgium on Tuesday.
Then, that U.S. locker room will truly feel like the capital of happiness.