will forever be immortalized within American soccer culture for his performance against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup. Never has a goalkeeper been so celebrated despite being on the losing end of a result. But signs of Howard’s decline were there to see in the game vs. Belgium and, as Howard enters the twilight of his career, fans and critics are struggling to hold him in the correct light.
For all the celebration, the fact is Tim Howard’s career is bigger than his performance in a World Cup knockout loss. He saved the US countless times on the international scene. In one-versus-one situations, the pressure was on the striker, not Howard. He knew when to attack the goalkeeper and when to stay on his feet. His strength kept him sturdy to evenly react and wait as well as staying lively in the goalmouth. He completed his duty of stopping shots and excelled even more in awkward situations in front of the goal. When there was a scramble in front of the net, it was a foregone conclusion that Howard would take care of it because he knew exactly where to be and when to be there.
For years, everyone knew that goalkeeping would not be a question if Howard was in net. Howard anchored the US in their first win at Azteca (see video, above) making two Gumby-esque saves at the end of the game. He captured an important tie against England in 2010 that helped catapult them to top of the group. There’s a strong chance he’ll reach 400 appearances for Premier League teams and the 104 caps with the United States is clearly a testimony to his consistency. As he entered the field, the roar of a “HOOOOWARD” from the crowd gave everyone chills. He lived up to the high standard his American predecessors set and was the only US goalkeeper to get the US out of the World Cup group stage twice.
Revist last summer when Howard repeatedly shut the door on Belgium. As a goalkeeper tallies up the saves, a mental block a goalkeeper can give strikers when they have made a string of saves. The goal shrinks as the goalkeeper plays with a newfound confidence that allows him to make more fingertip saves, somehow appear at the right place out of nowhere, and replenish his hit points back to 100 percent. While Howard did just that, there was something off about Howard’s play. Telltale signs of questionable technique that worked for Howard against Belgium, but signaled the beginning of a decline in his play.
Watching the video, Howard’s stance is the widest I’ve ever seen. It is needlessly exaggerated—so much so that he’s lost several inches on his height, shrinking himself to the ground. He couldn’t truly dive from this position without repositioning his feet; he could only fall over. On top of that, his hands really struggled to cleanly hold shots. When he went to ground, he would quickly trap the ball against his chest and forearms instead of focusing on proper technique. His feet overtook his hands’ responsibilities on one-versus-one situations, becoming the number one and preferred tool to making a save. It worked against Belgium for more than 90 minutes, but moving forward there was doubt that it was a sustainable mechanic.
Howard’s growing habits in the year leading up to the World Cup turned catastrophic when he returned to Everton. All of Howard’s tendencies became exposed this season as he abandoned percentage play. His out of control preshot routine is leaving him unsettled and hindering his reactions. Every now and then, there’s an immaculate save but it’s sandwiched with poorly timed decisions and uncertainty in tight encounters.
No matter the amount of an athlete’s accomplishments, the last years of their career are tough to watch. Fans cast an unrealistic standard on athletes based off their peak playing years. An appropriate gauge needs to be set in place. Is he the greatest goalkeeper for both Everton and the United States ever? You could make a very strong case for the rightfully appointed Secretary of Defense. Is Howard’s time as the premier goalkeeper for Everton and the United States running out? Based on recent evidence, I have to say yes.