A Veteran Presence In Net: Howard's Growing Role As a Leader
Nearly a decade into his playing career, Tim Howard is in a position of relative stability. The New Jersey native is firmly established as the number one goalkeeper for the United States and, with his years of playing experience in the Premier League, is one of the principal success stories of U.S. players abroad.
Still only 29 (a young age for goalkeepers who regularly play at the highest level until their late 30’s), Howard is entering his prime with a vast repertoire of experience already assembled. It is a luxury that few other players can draw upon, and as Howard embraces a larger role on the National Team, he is quick to remember the events and learning experiences that shaped his development as a player.
Arrival in England
Howard has played in England for the better part of his professional career, first with Manchester United and then with Everton, his current club. While his ascension through the national team ranks has been slow and steady, his move into the starting 11 with one of the biggest clubs in the world was much less predictable.
"Going there initially and playing so much for such a big club on a big stage was hard to take in all at one time,” said Howard, who within a month of his transfer from the MetroStars had laid claim to the starting goalkeeper position at United. “I really used a lot of my natural instincts and natural abilities to get by, and at the time I don't think I completely understood the situation I had been thrust in to."
"The whole club and everything around it was much bigger than who I was. I look back and I think how much I've learned from that experience, but it was so tough being a young and inexperienced goalkeeper being thrown in that position."
At Manchester United, there were medals and trophies, the biggest derbies and the most exciting of European nights in the Champions League. Yet when asked to pinpoint what it was that most shaped his experience at the club, Howard pointed to something far less tangible than a winners’ medal or Man of the Match award.
"I think the thing I came to understand the most was my personal conviction on and off the field. When you get there, you're at the biggest club in the world. Everyone has ideas that they want to impose on you, whether it be in goalkeeping or off the field," said Howard, in reference to the hectic life that constantly surrounded one of Europe's biggest clubs.
"At first, there are so many people giving you what you they think is advice. Now I look back and I think that experience kind of shaped and molded me. It allowed me, within that time, to say 'This is who I am, this who I'm going to be,' both on and off the field."
"It was such an eye opener and there were so many amazing positives that came out of being at Manchester United. It was such a learning experience in so many ways and the highs were high while the lows were low. It was just an awesome time in my career."
Howard's time at Manchester United came to an end in 2006, when he went on loan to Everton. With two years of solid experience in England under his belt, Howard noted the way he was able to approach the move to Merseyside with a much different mindset than his initial landing in England.
"I think having that ability to say 'This is who I am, this is what I'm about, love it or leave it,' gave me the opportunity to be more confident on the field," said Howard, who was immediately slotted into the Everton starting lineup. "It showed with my teammates and how they approached me and how I approached the game."
That kind of self-belief made for a seamless move both on and off the field, and Howard noted that "I went to Everton with a renewed sense of confidence and outlook on the future."
The assuredness was obvious, and Howard went on to feature in the vast majority of Everton's games in the 2006-07 season, leading the Toffees to a sixth place finish in the league. Now in his third season with the club, Howard is well aware of the opportunities that have opened up for him after playing in England for over half a decade.
"Being in MLS helped me start my career and I learned a lot of things that a young professional needs to know, but coming to England has definitely given me a different mentality," said Howard. "It has given me an edge because it is so competitive, even on a daily basis. There are so many aspects [of the game in England] that helped me to realize how I need to play on the field or how I need to act off of it. When I come into the national team now, I try to bring that mentality along with me."
A Veteran Presence
A growing corps of U.S. national team players seems to be finding their way to clubs abroad, and Howard believes that the collective mentality for the team can only benefit from it.
"You look at so many of our players going to different clubs abroad and they're starting to bring that mentality back to the national team as well," said Howard. "Sooner or later, we're all going to be on the same page because we're all going to be thinking the same way. For me, that's one of the ways the National Team has changed since I've been around."
Howard earned his first cap in 2002, going a full 90 minutes while shutting out Ecuador in a 1-0 victory. With goalkeepers like Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller ahead of him in the pecking order, the desire to move abroad – like Friedel and Keller - was always there for Howard. Now, Howard sees the same kind of ambition amongst the younger charges in this World Cup cycle.
"When I started playing for the U.S., I was a younger player trying to go abroad, and now I'm an older player seeing the younger guys do the same thing. It's interesting to see it happening and it is definitely good for our national team."
It is sometimes easy to confuse stability with complacency, but Howard insists that the latter has no chance of afflicting this National Team. "If you're standing still, you're going backwards. As a group, our results can always get better and our performance can always improve. We got a great result in Guatemala with the three points, but now you want to say, ‘How can we play better in a game like that?’"
There is a burden of leadership intrinsically linked to the role of first choice goalkeeper, but Howard is adamant that a variety of players on the National Team are well positioned to provide a veteran presence in World Cup qualifying.
"You look around the team and, though Beas [DaMarcus Beasley] and Landon [Donovan] have been around for awhile, you get guys like Carlos [Bocanegra], Oguchi Oyewu, and myself who have all been thrust into a veteran-type role with this cycle starting," said Howard. "For me it has been kind of a natural progression. I'm 29 now and I'm getting older. I've gained more and more experience throughout my career, so being a leader just seems pretty natural."
It is a role that Howard has become accustumed to for both club and country, and with his best years in the net ostensibly still ahead of him, it is a part he could be playing for many seasons to come.