The sun is setting on America’s keeper. But near the end of the most brilliant career in U.S. soccer history, Tim Howard stares directly into the sun, because that’s where the fun is. Stop and smell roses? Not nearly as sweet for Howard as beating up his 39-year-old body, diving to flick a shot away from goal, making every last save he’s allowed.
“The end is not something I’m afraid of. It’s actually something that drives me,” said Howard, who will celebrate his 40th birthday in 2019, the final year of his Major League Soccer contract with Colorado.
“I’ve always faced things head-on. I’m blessed to play to my age … Here with the Rapids, my time is now. I have to win this year or next year. And that’s it. Forty is the end for me, you know?”
As Howard talked about the inevitability of retirement, he stood in Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, on the concourse directly above the goal he will defend Saturday for the Rapids against the New York Red Bulls.
“I love the game. I’m obsessed with it,” Howard said. “My week is hilarious. It’s basically six days of getting my body ready to compete on Saturday. Then, on Sunday morning, I start over and do it all over again. It’s religious. It’s all-consuming.”
Want to make God laugh? Tell him your dreams. Howard was consumed with representing his country one last time at the World Cup in 2018. That’s not going to happen. Members of the U.S. men’s national team, from teenage phenom Christian Pulisic to Howard and his 121 caps, have nobody to blame but themselves for the failure to qualify.
“It will hurt forever. I think all the players that were involved in this last U.S. team that didn’t qualify will feel that pain forever,” Howard said. “But that’s normal. That’s sports. It’s an amazing love affair that breaks your heart and lifts you up at the same time.”
One of the most achingly beautiful aspects of the beautiful game is how unfair soccer can be, as every fan that has drowned the bitterness of a 1-nil loss in a beer knows well. But wouldn’t it have been sweet to salute Howard for everything America’s keeper has meant to soccer on the world’s biggest stage, rather than watching him travel the circuit in MLS, while Germany, Brazil and Spain compete for the sport’s biggest prize in Russia?
“There were better teams than us that didn’t make the World Cup this year: Italy and Holland and Chile,” Howard said. “We’ll bounce back.”
After a mind-boggling wretched 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago in October booted the USMNT out of the World Cup for the first time in 32 years, angry critics wanted to take a sledgehammer to everything red, white or blue in the sport. The rage chased Sunil Gulati from his role of president for U.S. Soccer. Bruce Arena, the godfather of coaching in America, recently told the Los Angeles Times: “They just don’t get it, the people that run the sport in our country. And U.S. Soccer has a major obligation to get it right. There needs to be a change in leadership.”
Is the nuclear option the only way to fix what’s wrong? Blow up everything about soccer in America, from the grassroots to the executive offices, and start over? Howard votes no.
“When the big guy gets knocked out and counted out, it’s a big story and everyone comes running. But in terms of a massive overhaul? I think the U.S. is OK. We have a bunch of talented players, and we’ll forge on. Stronger than ever, I think,” Howard said.
“The fact of the matter is, we were one goal from away qualifying for the World Cup, and that could’ve been one goal for or against us, in probably four out of the 10 qualifying games. I wouldn’t consider that something in need of a massive overhaul. We’ve got talented players that are hungry to set the story straight.”
The biggest honor in Howard’s soccer career was representing the USA in goal.
“Pulling my shirt on 120 some-odd times, every time it meant more than the last … If I ever got the chance to do it again, I would cherish it as much as I did the first time,” Howard said.
I’ve heard it shouted no American man over the age of 25 should play for the USMNT anytime soon, because the only way to move forward is by erasing the past.
The pain now felt, however, is nothing more than proof the love for soccer survived the embarrassment of the country’s recent failures. For more than a decade, Howard was the heart of the USMNT.
There will be blood, sweat and tears required for the U.S. men to get back to World Cup in 2022. But what’s one way to show the heart is still beating, the spirit cannot be broken and there’s a legacy worth celebrating?
Seeing Howard in goal one more time, proudly wearing the red, white and blue for his country.