Team USA Lost, but Tim Howard Is a Winner

Even in the crushing loss to Belgium, Tim Howard set a record with 16 saves. This has been his World Cup.

Ruben Sprich/Reuters

As Team USA battled through an ulcer-inducing overtime against Belgium, one thing was clear: Tim Howard single-handedly carried America's ass through its bittersweet World Cup adventure. More than a dozen times he rescued the U.S. from the Belgian onslaught, improbably blocking shot after shot. It cannot be overstated how devastating Kevin De Bruyne's game-changing goal for Belgium was but neither can Howard's super-human performance. Howard had the most saves in a single game, 16, in World Cup history. America owes an improbably large thank you to Howard for leading us.

Americans are officially caring about soccer. We watched the game in record numbers, eclipsing both baseball’s World Series—our national pastime—and the NBA finals. We’re buying Clint Dempsey jerseys in (relative) droves. We’re obsessing over Jermaine Jones’ “wonder” goal and praying to God his German heritage doesn’t stir any mixed feelings on Thursday. We’re debating whether Michael Bradley even deserves a spot on the team. But Howard, the man that has kept the U.S. afloat, hasn’t earned quite the same spotlight.

What is jaw-dropping to most American spectators is standard for anyone who’s seen Howard play. As a four-time veteran of the U.S. men’s World Cup team, there’s a quiet sturdiness to him. It’s a skill that makes him particularly invaluable and a big reason why he set a record for most World Cup appearances by an American goalkeeper. When push comes to shove, the pressure of staving off Ghana, Portugal, and Germany fell on Howard. The fact that the U.S. made it to overtime against the Red Devils is completely a credit to him.

Howard has managed to be one of the most reliable and best goalkeepers of this era, despite experiencing many ups and downs in his career. The boy from North Brunswick, New Jersey, made just six appearances in the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues (USISL) before being called up to Major League Soccer to play for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars at 19. He was signed in 2003 by Manchester United but, after a strong first season, suffered a crisis of confidence and was lent to the lesser Everton club. Instead of getting bogged down in despair, Howard became a standout goalkeeper for Everton and helped them knock United out of the FA Cup in 2009 with his stellar saves.

But Howard is more than old faithful. There is ample proof that he is a total badass on and off the pitch. Last year, at the less than spry age of 34, he broke two bones in his back while leading his Everton team to an FA Cup win. Despite sustaining the injury in the 85th minute, he powered through, tending goal until the final whistle. Yes, they weren’t “weight-bearing” bones, as Everton manager David Moyes stressed, but, come on. That makes Curt Schilling’s bloody sock look like a hangnail. Howard’s commitment to playing through bodily damage is more than refreshing in a sport littered with histrionic, red card-fueled “injuries” (I’m looking at you, Ronaldo).

That’s probably because Howard copes with a real disorder every day: Tourette Syndrome. Diagnosed at the age of 11, the tics associated with Tourette’s could have been crippling for a goalkeeper, but Howard has somehow managed to overcome whatever hardships the neurological condition poses. Often (arguably too often), Howard has been grilled about whether Tourette Syndrome has affected his playing ability. In 2013, Der Spiegel pressed him on his condition:

Der Spiegel: Has a ball ever slipped out of your hands because of a tic?

Howard: I have dropped a number of balls during my career. But it has never been because of a tic.

Der Spiegel: Do you worry that this could happen one day?

Howard: It won’t.

If that’s not the epitome of American badass, I’m not sure what is.

But the Der Spiegel line of was nothing compared to the low blows he’s absorbed by the European press. When Howard was signed by Manchester United in 2003, the British tabloids referred to him as “retarded.” Opposing fans often taunt him, screaming, “Swear in a minute, he's going to swear in a minute.”

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Unsurprisingly, Howard has channeled this hate into becoming a major advocate for people with Tourette Syndrome and, of course, has a great sense of humor about his condition—even when it comes to his bullies. He joked in a Yahoo! interview this month, “You know, we don’t all curse, I do on the field, unfortunately, to get my point across, but it’s not because of my condition.”

It’s fairly mindboggling, though, that anyone would dare to mock Howard within the same continent considering how physically imposing he is. The 6’3” specimen, born to an African-American long-distance truck driver and a Hungarian mother, is a combination of beard and brawn—oh, and an impressive collection of tats. His ink ranges from images of his children to the Superman logo (that one seems especially fitting given his leaping blocks). Even more charmingly, Howard unveiled his tattoos—and other bodily assets—for a good cause, stripping down (only partially, unfortunately) for PETA’s “Ink, Not Mink” anti-fur campaign.

In addition to his anti-fur stance, Howard is a devout Christian who once said, “The most important thing in my life is Christ. He’s more important than winning or losing or whether I’m playing or not. Everything else is just a bonus.” But, unlike another famously athletic and God-fearing Tim (Mr. Tebow), Howard is far less preachy. Instead of tweeting out Bible passages, Howard’s feed is all about his teammates. Check out this angry-faced selfie with Geoff Cameron, a true World Cup gem.

As badass as Howard is, he exudes genuine compassion and respect not only for his teammates but also his fellow footballers. In 2012, he inadvertently became only the fourth goalkeeper to score a goal in the Premier League with the aid of strong winds, but he refused to celebrate his accomplishment. “It was cruel,” he said. “You never want to see that happen. It’s not nice, it’s embarrassing, so I felt for Adam [Bogdan of Bolton Wanderers].”

Howard’s empathy is not only admirable but rare in a tournament that saw one player bite another on the pitch (and it wasn’t the first time, either). It may be what helps him take the more frustrating moments in stride. After Sunday’s draw, he said in his Zen-like way, “Football’s cruel sometimes.” Tuesday was definitive proof of that.