TIM HOWARD kept the ball out of the USA net with dives and slides, with his hands, knees and ankles. He just couldn’t do it forever.
With his team trying to reach the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 2002, he saved 12 Belgian shots in the first 90 minutes, to ensure the game ended 0-0. But Kevin De Bruyne scored in the third minute of extra time and Romelu Lukaku after 105 minutes of the match to give the Red Devils a 2-0 lead. Marc Wilmots’ men hung on in a barnstorming finish to a classic tie and eventually won 2-1 to knock out the brave American side.
Afterwards, Everton goalkeeper Howard was typically modest. “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.”
Howard finished the match having made 15 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 US team, but it counted for nothing but pride.
“For my heart, please don’t give me too many games like this,” Belgium coach Wilmots said. “He was in a state of grace.”
Howard was the first goalkeeper to be America’s No 1 in consecutive World Cups since Tony Meola in 1990 and 1994. His 104 international appearances are the US record, two more than the previous mark held by Kasey Keller.
“Tim was awesome for us,” US captain Clint Dempsey said. “As you would expect from him.”
Howard is animated and shouts a lot during games, a lot more than most goalkeepers. But his team-mates love him for it. “He’s somebody that we rely on so much for his performances on the field but also his leadership and his presence,” said midfielder Michael Bradley. “There’s not enough good things to say about him as a player, as a man, as a leader.”
Now 35, Howard has been first choice for Everton in the English Premier League since the middle of the 2007-08 season. He is contracted until 2018 and relishes the grind of one of the world’s top leagues. He plans to play “as long as my body lets me” and acknowledges “that’s obviously not a question that I can really answer now”.
He also won’t commit to another four years with the US team, especially with the large amount of travelling involved.
“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 – the Aston Villa No 1 – is Howard’s understudy and, at 29, is well positioned for the 2018 World Cup should Howard decide to retire from international football.
Calling Howard’s performance against Belgium “extraordinary”, US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati did not sound as if he thought the keeper would quit any time soon.
“I’m not sure Timmy is ready to not look towards Russia,” said Gulati. “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 last American players to leave the dressing room after the game, suddenly and unhappily ready for a few weeks off before reporting for pre-season training.
He carried a small silver- coloured case, not part of the gear he had when he arrived at Arena Fonte Nova.
Despite the US defeat, he was named man of the match and given the prize.
So, was it his least favourite individual honour? That question was far easier to deal with than the shots he faced. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s for sure.”
The team captured the hearts of America – from coast to coast, big towns and small, all the way to the White House.
“Thirty-one teams get their heart broken,” said Howard. “It has to end sometime. It ended a little bit early for us.”
Jürgen Klinsmann, the German World Cup winner who became USA coach three years ago, said: “They made their country proud with this performance and also with their entire performance in this World Cup.”
The crowd of 51,227 at Arena Fonte Nova appeared to be about one third pro-US, with ten per cent backing the Belgians and the rest neutral. Back home, millions watched in offices, homes and public gatherings that included a huge crowd at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
President Barack Obama joined about 200 staffers in an Executive Office Building auditorium to watch the second half. “I believe!” he exclaimed as he walked in at the front of the hall. “I believe!”
But belief and the incredible performance of Howard were not quite enough. The US left the tournament, but with their heads held high.