The Right Side: Tim Howard departs the EPL en route to the land of opportunity

This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports MagazineRead the full digital edition.

The Brick is a big brick pub that looks as old as the working-class London neighborhood that surrounds it. Identical two-story row houses scrunch together in a continuous serpentine housing settlement stretching to the end of the street. At the row’s end stands Goodison Park, one of the hallowed halls of English soccer. Built in 1892, the rectangular, white and blue stadium looks placed in the middle of a residential neighborhood by a giant crane. Picture Lambeau Field with goals instead of goalposts and you have Goodison Park.

No more than a couple of goalkeeper kicks away, The Brick is an extension of Goodison Park’s beating blue and white heart. This is the gathering spot and drinking hole of fans for Everton, Liverpool’s first team, started in 1878. That’s 14 years before the unfortunate birth of the more illustrious and lustily hated Liverpool FC. It’s the last game of the English Premier League season and the mood inside The Brick is subdued. In other words, it’s 1:30 p.m. and the fans are reasonably sober. Everton is ending its worst Premier season in 12 years, its worst home season in history. Its embattled manager was mercifully fired three days prior. This glorious club, once mentioned in the same British-brogued breaths as Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, has slipped into anonymity.

But on this last Sunday of the season, there is reason to celebrate. Tim Howard, Everton’s goalkeeper for the last 10 years, is playing his last game for the club. Considered the best goalkeeper in U.S. history, Howard is going down as one of the best in the history of a club that has been known for great goalkeepers. Howard, 37, isn’t retiring. In what Brits may see as easing into a recliner, Howard is joining the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer. Picture Peyton Manning playing his last game in Denver before joining the Canadian Football League and you have a glimpse of this day in Liverpool.

From Liverpool to Commerce City. Regardless of appearances, he is a massive bolt of experience, street cred and public relations to a Rapids team that is already the most improved in MLS.

But what is Colorado getting? In February, he lost his starting job to 25-year-old Spaniard, Joel Robles. To Everton fans, Howard has been a backbone of the club for a decade, a terrific goalkeeper who put his heart and soul into the club and the community. He led them to the Champions League his first two years and the Europa League his third. They made the FA Cup semifinals in 2012. Even as an American, he was as popular as any Everton player brought up kicking the ball in the shadows of Goodison. This is where soccer players are household names, where a speeding ticket makes the back of the tabloids, where family soccer ties date to the 19th century.

But, at 37…

“I don’t think he’s got anything left in the Premiership but he might do alright in America,” says Si Williams, an Everton fan since 1965 and so passionate he has the autograph of Everton’s legendary Alan Ball tattooed on his arm. “It’s a different game there. He’s been great for Everton the last 10 years.”

Says Jeff Hayward, a fan for 50 years, “Apart from this season, he’s been Everton’s top goalkeeper which says a lot about a top Premiership club. That tells you how good he is. This season has been a telling season for him. He’s lost his judgments when it comes to crosses and diving to his right or left, especially penalties. It’s been disappointing because he’s had such a good time in Everton.”

How good has he been? Howard’s 399 appearances are the most for an American in the world’s top league behind goalkeeper Brad Friedel’s 450. Howard matched Friedel’s American record of 132 clean sheets. In 2007, Howard’s streak of 210 consecutive matches ended with a finger injury, two games short of the club record.

“He’s been fantastic,” says Sean Matthews, 46. “He’s been a great saver for the club. He’s been out of form this year. He took a lot of criticism when the whole side has been out of form. He’s lost a little confidence but over the years he’s been fantastic.”

If Howard’s form has dropped to Banana Republic, he still may be Brooks Brothers in MLS. With the L.A. Galaxy, David Beckham bent it like he did in his salad days with Manchester United. Paul Bravo, the Rapids’ technical director, unabashedly says, “We’re getting a player who walks into his position as the best in the league.”

It was only two years ago when Everton extended his contract to 2018 and among all the paddle boys Everton fans whipped up on this season, the defense in front of him took the worst abuse. Chris Woods, the former Rapid and Howard’s mentor, is goalkeeper coach for West Ham United and maintains, “He’s got to be one of the top six goalkeepers” in the Premiership.

So why leave? The reasons are nearly as many as the tattoos that cover his body. The Rapids’ success. A new challenge. A decade is enough. The next World Cup approaches. But maybe this is the biggest reason.

He’s an American.

“Denver is a sports town,” he says. “Denver also likes a winner. I saw the Super Bowl. I know the Avalanche have lifted the Cup. You win games, you turn heads. You also fill seats. If you can win enough and win often, you change the perception. That’s an exciting challenge.”

***

Howard is sitting in a conference room at Everton’s Finch Farm training complex. He’s been frantically packing boxes even though he knew back in February he was headed to Colorado. Here’s a man who came to fabled Manchester United as a 23-year-old, stayed three years then came to Liverpool, where soccer even surpasses the city’s other hometown heroes in popularity. Then again, The Beatles didn’t win the treble in 1966. He has become very English. He has a home in the countryside south of Manchester, 30 minutes from Finch Farm. “I enjoy driving on the left side of the road,” he says. He’s played in the top venues in the world, played against many of the top players who ever played.

Yet you see in his eyes and smile that he’s totally jazzed about playing in Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

He grew up in North Brunswick, N.J., the son of a truck driver who left before Howard’s first memory and a Hungarian mother who worked for a packing container distributor. However, Howard has more ties to Colorado than just a 3 ½-year contract. Woods, a former Rapid, is such a mentor to Howard that he’ll wear his No. 1 this season. He remains very close to his ex-wife’s cousin, Ross Paule, another ex-Rapid. Howard’s childhood hero was Chris Jackson (Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), the former Denver Nugget who, like Howard, overcame Tourette Syndrome to achieve athletic greatness.

The biggest ties came when he sat down with Bravo and team president Tim Hinchey. The Rapids traded up to get the first pick for all returning U.S. national team players and players sold outside the league. They set their sights on Howard. They knew the U.S. still flutters like a red, white and blue flag when someone mentions his World Cup-record 15 saves against Belgium two years ago. They sat down with Howard over the winter after they had finished last in the Western Conference the year before. Rapids attendance was similar to what Howard gets here simply by walking into a store. This was the greatest recruiting pitch since Joe Harrington landed Chauncey Billups.

“There’s trust and there’s respect and I have that for Paul Bravo,” Howard says. “Paul Bravo and Tim Hinchey outlined a plan that didn’t seem like lip service. It seemed real. They were putting the ball in motion to make certain moves to get better. Since those discussions about six months ago, I’ve seen those moves happen. So it’s not like I signed a contract and none of the things they said came true. That excited me.

“Look, as I started to map things out, I do have a strong draw to the city.”

He maintains an offseason home in Memphis where his two young children live – as well as a home on his illustrated chest – and another World Cup is set for Russia in 2018. He will compete for the U.S. in the Copa America tournament under the watchful eye of national coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a German who flies the European Union flag whenever he discusses player development. Thirteen years in the Premiership? Okay, Tim. You pass.

This could be a home run for Bravo, who needs one after the Rapids missed the playoffs the last two years. Like everyone else, how could he forget that Belgium game? Playing behind a pitiful U.S. defense that looked very similar to tai chi, Howard made saves diving right, diving left, with his left foot, with his right foot. Belgium finally won, 2-1, with two goals in extra time but it was enough for Howard to receive a call from President Obama and earn endorsement deals from the likes of McDonald’s, Nike and Marriott.

Then again, is Bravo doing the MLS equivalent of the Mets signing Willie Mays? The Rapids, behind 24-year-old goalkeeper Zac MacMath, have given up, at press time, the fewest goals in the league. How much can Howard improve on that?

“We wouldn’t have signed him for the length of the deal unless we felt he had enough left in the tank,” Bravo said. “If you go back and listen to his coach talk about his performances and where he thinks Tim could play in that league for another couple of years, that was enough for us to take a real strong look at the situation and come to the conclusion that no doubt he’d be the best goalkeeper in this league for his time here.”

There was a time when Howard was the scourge of the Premier League. With Manchester United, he won the 2003 FA Community Shield by saving a decisive penalty kick, the 2004 FA Cup and the 2006 League Cup. With Everton in 2006 he became only the fourth goalkeeper in EPL history to score a goal when his wind-blown kick bounced over the Bolton Wanderers goalie’s head. In 2008-09 he set a club record for most clean sheets. He started the next year with four straight. He became a captain for the first time in 2009. The sounds of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” flooded Goodison Park.

Howard is a big name in the U.S? He was a big name in the EPL long before 2014.

“It sharpens you,” Howard says. “When you do this every, single day for a decade and a half, your level of excellence goes up and up. Your ability to compete at this level, you talk about playing against the best players in the world every day in training and then every weekend. That’s not a fantasy. That’s real life. You can only get better. If you don’t get better, you’re gone. You’re an afterthought.”

For the second half of this season, so was Howard. After he returned from the World Cup, mistakes started creeping into his game. He was staying on his line longer. He occasionally got beat on his near post. One time in March 2015 he caught a routine cross and the Everton faithful gave him a Bronx cheer.

Afterward, he told the Liverpool Echo, “To hell with the criticism. I give my heart and soul to this club, to my career.”

This season he started strong then Arsenal scored on two free kicks and the mob collectively said, “Here we go again.” Manager Roberto Martinez inserted Robles in Cup competitions and he ran off a string of wins. Then came a strange turn of events. In January, Howard told Martinez and club chairman Bill Kenwright that he had been contacted by the Rapids and considered leaving.

He then injured his knee and Martinez started Robles Feb. 3 against Newcastle. Everton won, 3-0. It beat Stoke the next game 3-0. Robles has started ever since.

“Subsequently, the team started playing very, very well,” Howard says. “That’s the life in football. A team’s playing well, I wasn’t on the team at the time and I don’t have any complaints about that. Certainly when you’re on the way out the door, other people need an opportunity to play. I understand how that works.”

It soon became obvious that Everton’s problems weren’t with goalkeeping. Robles played well but the team dredged through a string of 10 games with only one win. Hopelessly out of competition for European cups next year, the team merely tried to save some pride. They couldn’t even save Martinez’s job. After a 3-0 thrashing by relegated-challenged Sunderland in the season’s penultimate game, Martinez, who promised, “I’ll get you in the Champions League” when hired two seasons ago, was axed.

The club is at a crossroads. Maybe Howard hitched the right ride. The Rapids are on their way up, although few know it outside MLS. Woods, his coach on the World Cup team, has seen Howard over the years from his job at West Ham. He says Robles is no better. The Rapids, he says, are getting a vintage Howard, like the wine and not a wall painting.

“Let’s not forget. I know he’s 37 years old, but it was only 20 months ago when he played in the World Cup,” Woods says. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out for him saving the team. As far as I’m concerned, he has all the attributes, all the ability he had before. I don’t see him doing anything different.”

***

It’s 15 minutes before a game no one in England cares about except Tim Howard fans. Goodison Park’s big screen is showing a highlight tape of his saves over the years. Here he is diving to block a rocket in the upper left corner. He leaps backward to flip the ball over the goalpost. Kick save left. Kick save right. There’s Howard, his beard ranging from clean shaven to woolly mammoth, throwing gut punches and uppercuts at the goal after another save.

James Brown’s “Living in America” fills the air. Then comes Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” A picture of a red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam is on the screen reading, “UNCLE TIM THANKS YOU.” “THANK YOU, TIM!” quickly follows.

It’s a combination sendoff and Fourth of July with fish n’ chips instead of hotdogs. “Z Cars,” Everton’s police blues-based theme song since the ’60s, plays as Howard, getting an honorary start, leads the team onto the field between two giant U.S. flags. He’s introduced playing “THE LAST GAME FOR EVERTON!” and gets a rousing standing ovation, a still-beloved, once-cherished superstar soon off to resurrect his career in his home country.

The game could only have been better if it actually meant something. Interim manager David Unsworth plays kids so young they nearly trip over their umbilical cords. Visiting Norwich City has already been relegated. Yet even these two collections of English mediocrity show the difference between the Premier League and MLS. The passes are sharper. The shots are stronger. The windows of opportunity are narrower.

Howard isn’t really challenged until the 65th minute when he makes a fabulous foot save. Everton is already leading 3-0 and it ends that way, giving Everton a final mark of 11 wins, 13 losses and 14 ties, good for only 47 points and 11th place in the 20-team EPL. More importantly, Howard ties Friedel’s U.S. record of 132 clean sheets and ends with a goals against average of 1.40, the worst of his stay in Everton.

Afterward, he hugs each of his teammates one last time. Even the Norwich City players, who get occasional glimpses of the Premier League during its up and down existence, give him long embraces, smiles and words. “Born in the USA” blares again. The U.S. flags appear again. An announcer interviews Howard at midfield. Only a few of the 36,000 fans have left.

“This will always be my home,” Howard tells the crowd. “It’s where I grew up. I love each and every one of you.” He circles the field with “U! S! A! U! S! A!” reverberating as if it’s an Olympic hockey game.

“It’s not easy putting into perspective [what it means] to be a No. 1 for 10 years. It proves what a fantastic goalkeeper he is,” says Everton defender Phil Jagielka. “He’s done a fantastic job. Obviously. He showed it again today. There’s still plenty left in the tank. Leaving us is obviously MLS’ gain.”

Howard is seen running down Goodison’s ancient corridor, hugging family and friends. Finally, he is alone, talking to the lone reporter who sticks around to get his final thoughts.

Dressed in a sharp navy suit and shiny black dress shoes, he’s asked how emotional it was.

“It was always going to be emotional,” he says. “This is my home. I tried to hold back the tears but every now and then they came. It’s always going to be tough when you address people you adore and respect. There’s a finality to it but I was delighted with the reception.”

When he walks out the door, he will be an ex-Evertonian and a current Rapid. His first game will be, appropriately, July 4 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

“I came here to Manchester United when I was 23 and I knew nothing about the game and the art of goalkeeping,” he says. “This is a new chapter for me. I’m excited. I feel like I’ve got some miles still in the tank and I want to achieve greatness. I want to continue to strive for that. I’m ready for the challenge.”

He’s asked if he’s lost any quickness.

“Eventually, Father Time catches up to us all,” he says. “But I’ve tried to continue working on my reflexes. You do that by keeping yourself fit and getting out there and seeing the ball. I do that. I don’t miss days of training. I feel my reflexes are still there.”

He goes out the players’ entrance and doesn’t get halfway to his car before a blue mob descends on him. He signs every autograph. He poses for every selfie. He smiles to everyone who says, “Thanks for everything, Tim.” One American with a Rutgers sweatshirt races up and says, “I came all the way here from Brunswick, N.J., to see Tim Howard.” Howard poses with him behind an Everton banner.

Finally, the last fan gone, he gets in his shiny black car and is driven off, along the left-hand side of the road. Where it leads when it crosses over, Howard and the Rapids will learn soon enough.

John Henderson is a freelance writer based in Rome. Follow his travel website, Dog-Eared Passport, at www.johnhendersontravel.com.

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