Eight years after leaving MLS for the greener pastures of European stardom, Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard is one of the top shot-stoppers soccer has to offer, a decorated American export affectionately referred to by his English club's supporters as their "yankee doodle dandy."
Having been honored as the English Premier League's top goalkeeper for his 2003-04 season with Manchester United, and internationally as the winner of the Golden Glove at the 2009 Confederations Cup, Howard arguably is the most recognizable face worldwide ever produced by U.S. Soccer.
But before the New Jersey native could take the pitch at Manchester's Old Trafford or Everton's Goodison Park, he started his career in the more humbling settings of MLS's early days while playing for the league's New York franchise — then called the MetroStars — from 1998 to 2003.
Although many young Americans figure the sooner they journey across the pond the better, Howard bided his time by getting regular minutes in the fledgling league — a decision he can safely say paid dividends.
"Playing in MLS is valuable, and I'm an example of that," Howard said. "I had the opportunity to learn my trade and apply that and get better through mistakes. I was able to just get that ball rolling, and there's no substitute for playing."
More recently, Howard has spent the past six seasons with Everton, backstopping the Merseyside club to finishes in the top half of the EPL table each campaign except his first.
Internationally, the 32-year-old has amassed 65 caps for the U.S., including all four matches at last summer's World Cup in South Africa, using his status as a fiery, vocal presence to establish himself as a key leader for the American squad.
"He's incredibly smart and experienced, and he's real quick," said D.C. United and U.S. national team forward Charlie Davies. "Whenever you have a keeper like that in the net, your defense is pretty confident."
Everton will play D.C. United on Saturday in a friendly at RFK Stadium. Howard, who was rested for the Toffees' meeting with the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday, is on offseason leave until Friday but will join his team in Washington, an Everton spokesman said.
If Howard gets the start Saturday, he would go up against a United side he used to haunt with regularity during his time with the MetroStars. While it's been nearly a decade since he last suited up to play against D.C. on a scorching afternoon in July 2003 — less than a month before he signed with Manchester United — he remembers the contest well.
In regulation, Howard made a slew of stunning saves that kept the visiting MetroStars in the game. With the teams heading to overtime tied 2-2, then-New York coach (and current U.S. boss) Bob Bradley moved Howard into the field and substituted rookie midfielder Eddie Gaven between the posts, capitalizing on an MLS loophole that allowed an extra sub for a goalkeeper.
Howard returned to his normal place in net at the next stoppage of play, and Gaven used his fresh legs to score the winner minutes later. The controversy that ensued caused MLS to promptly eliminate the goalkeeper substitution rule, but the three points belonged to the MetroStars all the same.
"It was incredible," Howard recalled. "The whole being in the field part, to be quite honest, years later I still don't know what went on. It sounded pretty cool and tactically [Bradley] is astute, so I just went with it."
In goal for United on Saturday likely will be Bill Hamid, a 20-year-old who last year broke Howard's record as the youngest goalkeeper to win an MLS match. Recognizing Hamid's talent, Howard has taken the D.C. player under his wing, noting that "from a potential standpoint, the sky's the limit" for the United youth academy product.
"The downside to potential is that you have to fulfill it," Howard added. "I think he's well on his way. With goalkeeping, it's just about being steady, being level-headed, being strong mentally. ... I told him if he keeps going, I'd love to be his backup on the national team when I get old and ride his coattails a little bit."
Said Hamid: "Everything he says to me in terms of motivation and focusing and working on my game, I take every single thing and I put it in my pocket and remind myself daily what it takes to be the best."
Come August, Howard will set his sights on getting off to a "gangbusting start" with Everton in hopes the Toffees can spend this season competing for one of the Champions League berths awarded to the top four EPL finishers.
Howard also has long-term goals — namely, playing his part as the U.S. builds toward the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Even though last month's Gold Cup concluded with the U.S. suffering a 4-2 loss to rival Mexico in the final, a stinging result Howard said is still on his mind, the veteran was encouraged by his team's performances in the tournament and feels ready to help the U.S. qualify for its seventh straight World Cup.
"We at the moment are playing better soccer, better football, in terms of just our style," Howard said. "We've built a lot in the past six months, and I think our passing and our ability to go forward in the Gold Cup was a testament to that. So the next thing on the horizon is to make sure we're focused and prepared to enter World Cup qualifying."
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