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June 17, 2010

Time to give Howard his props

Carlisle By Jeff Carlisle
ESPN.com
(Archive)

PRETORIA, South Africa -- Whenever the list of best goalkeepers is compiled, the usual suspects are trotted out. Spain's Iker Casillas, Italy's Gianluigi Buffon and Brazil's Julio Cesar are the names often bandied about. But perhaps it's time for another name to break into the upper echelon -- U.S. keeper Tim Howard.

Howard was named Man of the Match in the Americans' 1-1 tie with England, despite suffering a rib injury in the first half that initially looked like it might force him from the game. But that was by no means the first time the North Brunswick, N.J., native had come to the national team's rescue. His performances at last year's Confederations Cup earned him the Golden Gloves award as the tournament's best goalkeeper, beating out the aforementioned trio of stars. He continued that fine form throughout World Cup qualifying, helping to secure the Americans' sixth consecutive trip to the finals. At the end of 2009, Howard cracked the top 10 in voting for Goalkeeper of the Year, as determined by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics.

Not surprisingly, Howard's international teammates are quick to sing his praises.

"[Howard] is a fantastic athlete, he's a good leader, he's vocal, he organizes, he's got all the attributes that make all good keepers who they are," said U.S. defender Jay DeMerit. "Timmy is right up there with them."

"We've seen it with our team for a long time, and he performs week in and week out in the Premiership, which is a high level," said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra. "With our team, we make a few mistakes defensively and he's there to pick us up. He's definitely up there with the Buffons and that class."

Yet despite these accolades, Howard operates in the shadows of players like Buffon and Casillas. Part of this is due to the club Howard plays for. While Everton is well supported and well managed, it lacks the financial means to compete consistently with the biggest clubs in the English Premier League. That means Howard isn't playing in the high-profile UEFA Champions League, where other keepers get to show their abilities to a larger audience on a routine basis.

Of course, it wasn't that long ago that Howard was playing in the Champions League for Manchester United. And perhaps it was those experiences that have slowed his ascent into the Elite Keeper Club.

In 2004, Howard made a high-profile error in the second leg of United's Champions League quarterfinal against Porto. With just minutes remaining, he parried what looked to be a routine shot right into the path of Porto midfielder Costinha, who converted from close range, knocking the Red Devils out of the tournament.

In terms of his Manchester United career, Howard never recovered, even as he helped win an F.A. Cup and was named to the Professional Footballer's Association Team of the Year later that season. He continually battled with Roy Carroll for the starting goalkeeper position until United acquired Edwin van der Saar in the summer of 2005, a move that condemned Howard to the bench.

He has no regrets, however.

"When you go to Manchester United, you play with guys like Rio Ferdinand, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs; you see what it's like, how to act at the highest level," Howard said. "You see what it means to go to work every day. I took a lot from that experience. I think it helped shape me, my mentality as a professional."

Howard has since resurrected his career with Everton, helping the club to punch well above its weight. That hasn't been enough to land the Toffees back into the Champions League, although there have been some near-misses in recent years.

The temptation is to think Howard should try to engineer a move to a higher-profile club, but he thinks the Toffees will provide him with the necessary platform to show off his talents.

"I do have an ambition to get there," said Howard of the Champions League. "I love Everton. I think it's disrespectful when players talk about other clubs. It's a disgrace really, people always flogging themselves for another contract.

"I think we're in touching distance," Howard continued. "The gap has become the top four, and then the next four, with ourselves, Tottenham, [Aston] Villa and [Manchester] City. It's a big fight, a really big fight. We had a boatload of injuries, it's not an excuse, but I believe in our team and we did some really awesome things and we can get back there, we just need a really good start."

In the meantime, Howard will have to be content with burnishing his reputation at the international level. He can take a big step forward in this regard by helping the U.S. get out of the first round. As Friday's crunch match with Slovenia looms, he feels it is a game that the Americans must win, especially given the Green Dragons' 1-0 victory over Algeria.

He'll also need to shake off the rib injury he sustained against England. Howard indicated the only scenario he was worried about was going for a ball at full stretch.

Then he added, "Adrenalin is a great equalizer."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.