Tim Howard has been a staple of the U.S. Men’s National Team for so long that it’s hard to imagine a major tournament without the bearded bouncer in frame.
He’s had historic moments, inspirational messages and phone calls with the President, but it hasn’t always been this way. Before Howard’s rise to international stardom, there was another big man on campus – Kasey Keller.
The debate has long raged as to which is the more decorated U.S. keeper, but a lead may now becoming more clear.
Howard and Keller’s respective club paths have some remarkable parallels. As youths, both honed their skills in leagues close to their homes. Keller, born in Washington state in 1969, played his first season of professional ball in 1989 with the Western Soccer League side Portland Timbers. Howard, born in 1979 in North Brunswick, New Jersey, started in 1998 in MLS with the New York MetroStars (who would go on to become the New York Red Bulls).
Then, both were recruited by English clubs to take their game to the next level. Howard famously joined one of the most recognizable and profitable clubs in the world in Manchester United, whereas Keller joined the London-based club Millwall. After proving himself for four years at Millwall, Keller seized his opportunity to make it into the Premier League and was transferred to Leicester City, which had just been promoted to the top-flight league in England. In his first season with Manchester United, Howard was named to the Professional Footballers’ Association Team of the Year along with the likes of Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Steven Gerrard and current NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira. The award is one in which the best players in their positions from the top four flights of English football are honored, a feat which Keller was never able to accomplish.
Another area that Howard has the edge on Keller in club play is that Howard has played in the UEFA Champions League. Howard played with Manchester United in the 2003-04 competition and made it all the way to the knockout round before being ousted by the eventual champions FC Porto. The highest European international club competition that Keller has played in is the Europa Cup, which he played in once with Leicester City and twice with Rayo Vallecano in the Spanish top flight league La Liga.
Both Howard and Keller played the bulk of their careers in the best leagues in the world. Howard played the entirety of his European club career in the Premier League, heading to Everton after his time with Manchester United was finished. Keller played in arguably the best three leagues in the world: the Premier League, La Liga and eventually the top-flight German league, the Bundesliga, with Borussia Monchengladbach. However, Howard played more consistently during those times. In his 13 years he appeared in 399 games abroad, while Keller played 330 in his 12 years.
Howard’s teams also consistently finished in better positions than Keller’s. The best season result for any of Keller’s teams in the top-flight leagues in Europe was his first year with Leicester City in which the Foxes finished ninth in the Premier League. Though Howard never won the Premier League title in his time, he finished third with Manchester United twice and finished as high as fifth while with Everton. The worst finish Everton ever had with Howard in the net was the 2015-16 season in which Everton finished in 11th place.
Oh, and Howard has more goals than Keller with one (if you haven’t seen it, I highly suggest you check it out).
Keller wrapped up his playing career in MLS, where his biggest achievement is winning a U.S. Open Cup three-peat from 2009-11. Howard is one year in to his his second round MLS service, and in his first season led the Rapids, who finished the previous season with the worst record in MLS, to the Conference Finals, further than Keller was ever able to get in his three-year MLS stint.
On the club side, Howard has had the more illustrious career in one of the best leagues in the world, and he is still in the process of writing his MLS legacy. Keller had an amazing club career, but he didn’t do enough to elevate himself above Howard’s status.
On the international side, Keller’s stats are impressive. He has the second-most caps in U.S. Men’s National Team history (behind Howard), the second most wins (again behind Howard) and the most shutouts with 47. This is the biggest stat for Keller. He has more shutouts in fewer matches with the senior USMNT, so in essence he gets shutouts at a higher rate than Howard. Does this mean he’s a more effective keeper?
Let’s look at the results. Keller has been on the wrong side of history during his World Cup appearances for the USMNT. He was first on the U.S. World Cup squad in 1990 as a backup to Tony Meola. After not being selected in 1994, Keller was in net for two of the team’s three group games in 1998, all of which were losses. The team understandably lost to Germany in the first match, but followed that game up with a 2-1 loss to Iran. Keller was replaced for the third game by Brad Friedel, who he spent much of his career battling for the U.S. keeper position, but the U.S. lost that match 1-0 to Yugoslavia and finished last in their group.
Keller backed up Friedel for the duration of the 2002 World Cup in which the U.S. advanced all the way to the quarterfinals, but got his final opportunity on the biggest of stages in 2006. That year, however, would turn out to be a disastrous World Cup for the U.S. They finished last in their group behind Italy, Ghana and the Czech Republic. Their only result in the competition came, surprisingly, in a 1-1 tie with eventual champions Italy. Howard usurped Keller’s role in 2010 and hasn’t relinquished it since.
In Howard’s subsequent World Cups, the U.S. was never eliminated in the group stage. In 2010, Howard led the U.S. to an impressive group win over England, but the team ultimately lost their first knockout game to Ghana. In 2014, the U.S. advanced to the knockout stage in impressive fashion after being paired with tough teams. They finished second behind Germany in a group that also included Portugal and Ghana. The U.S. was again bounced in the first knockout game, this time by Belgium.
If the USMNT is able to secure a berth in the 2018 World Cup, Howard will have an opportunity to cement his status as the best goalkeeper the U.S. has ever produced. His accolades from the Premier League, MLS and the USMNT all speak for themselves, and though Keller should be thought of as one the the best the U.S. has ever fielded, Howard clearly has the superior track record. If you haven’t been out to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to witness him play live, do yourself a favor. A generational talent like his does not come very often.