“I don’t want to be the hero,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard told the London Times a decade ago when he was playing for Manchester United. “I don’t want to be the goat. Somewhere in the middle’s all right by me.”
But at the World Cup in Brazil over the past two weeks, the unassuming 35-year-old who would rather spend a quite night at home than go out partying, put himself so far over into the “hero” column. The middle may never be an option for him again.
After solid performances against Ghana and Portugal, Howard turned in arguably the finest work of his career in back-to-back matches against Germany—a 1-0 loss for the U.S.—and Tuesday’s 2-1 Round of 16 overtime loss to Belgium that sent the Yanks home.
Against Belgium, Howard kept the ball out of the net with slides, with dives and with leaps.
He just couldn't do it forever.
With the U.S. trying to reach the Cup quarterfinals for the first time since 2002, he saved 12 of Belgium's shots in regulation to keep the game scoreless. Some of them in truly spectacular fashion—with the tip of his foot or leaping to push the ball over the crossbar.
But Kevin De Bruyne finally got the ball past him a couple of minutes into overtime, and Romelu Lukaku did it again in the 105th minute to build a two-goal lead for the Red Devils, who hung on for a 2-1 win.
Howard finished with 16 saves, the most in a World Cup game since FIFA started keeping track in 2002. It was his finest performance in 13 years with the national team.
"I'm just trying to do all the things that have gotten me here and gotten us here," he said. "That's what I signed up to do — stick my face in front of balls. It's nothing startling."
Other people were a little more impressed.
"For my heart, please don't give me too many games like this," Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said. "He was in a state of grace."
U.S. captain Clint Dempsey was equally effusive.
"Tim was awesome for us," Demsey said. "As you would expect from him."
Howard yells a lot during games. More than most goalkeepers.
And his teammates love him for that.
"He's somebody that we rely on so much for his performances on the field but also his leadership and his presence," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "There's not enough good things to say about him as a player, as a man, as a leader."
Howard was born in North Brunswick, N.J., in 1979, and he suffers from Tourette’s—the neurological disorder that is characterized by physical and vocal tics.
“It’s never hindered me in any way,” he told the U.K. paper the Observer in 2004. “I kept quiet about it for 9 years, not telling my family as if I was ashamed But what’s the point in that?... I’ve never dropped a cross because of it. At least not yet.”
In high school, his first love was basketball, but at 6-foot-3 he didn’t have much of a chance of making it to the NBA. As a goalie, however, his height and agility proved a major asset.
“Basketball’s been good for me,” he told the Times. “The principles of defending are similar.”
After stretches with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (as the Red Bulls were then known), Man U, and Aston Villa in the U.K., Howard has been the starter for Everton in the Premier League since the middle of the 2007-08 season.
He is signed with the team through 2018 and plans to play "as long as my body lets me," although he acknowledges, "That's obviously not a question that I can really answer now."
He also won't commit to continuing to play for the U.S. national team beyond Brazil.
"Those decisions will be made, obviously, when I'm less emotional and things settle down and I have a few important conversations with important people," Howard said.
Brad Guzan, who is Aston Villa's current goalkeeper, is Howard's No. 2 and, at 29, is positioned well for the 2018 World Cup—should Howard decide to retire from the national team, that is.
U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati didn't sound as if Howard would be leaving anytime soon.
"I'm not sure Timmy is ready to not look towards Russia," he said. "He's one of the players that matters. And nobody goes into a tournament like this with our team and doesn't expect Timmy to play really well."
Howard was among the final American players to leave the locker room of the stadium in Salvador after the loss to Belgium, suddenly and unhappily facing a few weeks off before having to report to Everton for preseason training.
He carried a small silver-colored case, clearly not part of the gear he had when he arrived at Arena Fonte Nova. Despite the U.S. defeat, he was selected the Man of the Match and was given an award.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.