Two safe hands are important for any team with ambitions. Memphis 901 have four.
“There’s a buzz, a real excitement in the locker room, when a big player joins up with the team – I remember that from when I was playing,” said Tim Howard, part-owner of Memphis 901 and the man who brought former MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Bill Hamid to the second-division Tennessee club. “There’s that feeling that ‘this guy can help us.’”
“We had a long talk,” the 32-year-old Hamid said of the conversation that led to the MLS veteran signing on with a team in the USL Championship. “It all made sense and I wanted in.”
Two Goalkeeping Greats
Howard is an American hero by any measure you employ. A (very) partial list of his accomplishments include an FA Cup crown in England with Manchester United, multiple selections as an MLS All-Star and a record 121 caps (and two World Cups) for the USMNT. It’s safe to say he knows more than most – as much as anyone, in fact – the value of a big-time keeper.
And for a second-tier club in the midst of a Cup run – aiming to knock off teams from the top flight – it can often be the difference between an oh-so-close exit and a step up the ladder.
“The fact that Bill’s put those big paws of his on trophies is important,” Howard said of Hamid, who’s been an opponent on many fields through the years as well as a teammate with the U.S. National Team. “He’s got a championship type pedigree. He’s aggressive and challenging
Howard added: “Bill plays big.”
It’s no coincidence that Hamid’s arrival at the club coincided with a hot run in the 110-year-old Open Cup. “He makes the goal smaller,” Howard said of Hamid – who moved on at the start of the year from over a decade with D.C. United (split into two stretches with two seasons in Denmark with FC Midtjylland in between). He made the goal so small against Atlanta United that the 2018 MLS and 2019 Open Cup champs could only put one past him in one of just two Third Round Cupsets.
A Cup run for Hamid – now preparing for the Round of 32 – is no new phenomenon.
“That was one of the biggest moments of my career,” said Hamid, remembering back to 2013 when he won the Open Cup with a D.C. United team that finished the MLS season dead last. “It was huge in DC United’s history and I’m hoping I can bring that experience here and preach some to the younger players because you can see what it means for a club from the lower leagues to make a mark in the Cup.”
He was named player of the match in that 2013 Final. He made four massive saves and stood on his head to force a slim 1-0 win “on the road, at their house” he stressed. The RSL players, by the time the final whistle went, had run out of options and were drained of confidence.
That’s what great goalkeepers do.
A Reset for Hamid
He’s still just 32, though it seems Hamid’s been among the top American goalkeepers forever. He’s clear about wanting to “restart his career” and “get back to MLS or Europe.” But as solid a pro as you’ll ever meet, he’s in Memphis to help build what Howard and his owner partners began “from scratch” in 2019.
From missing the USL playoffs in their first two seasons, Memphis are now on the up. They reached the conference semifinals last year and are flying in the Open Cup. The club’s Third Round win was their first time ever beating an MLS opponent.
Just as Hamid’s presence in the locker room – and, of course, out on the field – has had the boost Howard hoped for, the club’s run in the Cup has also created a buzz among the players. Next up, they meet USL local rivals Birmingham Legion on May 10th (streamed LIVE on U.S. Soccer YouTube).
While not an MLS opponent, there’s plenty of motivation.
“You can feel it in the locker room, when these Cup games get closer,” Hamid said about the vibe among the players before the 2-1 extra-time win over Atlanta. “There’s serious excitement among the guys.”
Birmingham Legion are Memphis’ biggest rival in the USL Championship. They’re separated by a little under 250 miles. And the rivalry that’s built up between the two clubs is inspiration enough for Howard, who still remembers the big crosstown games from his days with Manchester United and Everton both.
“Rivalries are fun,” said Howard, who’s planning to be in Alabama’s Protective Stadium for the big Round of 32 game. “This is our fiercest rival and no one will be holding back.” Hamid’s in similar mood, and he snaps at the notion that his teammates might take their next game lightly.
“If we take our foot off the gas at all, we’re gonna’ get beat,” he insisted.
Howard’s first taste of the Open Cup came back in 2001 when, at the tender age of 22, he lined up alongside Tab Ramos and Richie Williams when the MLS’ MetroStars (now NYRB) went down to the Charleston Battery. He conceded four that day in a heavy shock loss to a second-tier team. “You always want to be part of the good side,” laughed Howard, who won the FA Cup in 2004 alongside a fresh-faced Christiano Ronaldo. “But the losing, the being upset, it’s part of the story too.”
Cup Magic & Realities
The magic of the Cup is something that both men talk about, with Howard touching on how it gives players and teams “the ability to dream” and provides “so much romance.” But in the end, it’s the magic of winning that drives these two men forward.
“When we beat Atlanta, we weren’t supposed to do that,” said Howard, drifting back to his own successes – too many to count – out on the soccer field. “Talking to the players and seeing their faces at the end of the game, that’s what it's about.
“Those moments,” he sighed, “you don’t get a lot of them as a player.”
Hamid also knows how rare – and precious – those moments are. “It’s not that many games, man [to win the Open Cup] and you can have your hands on a trophy. You can lift it up,” said the man who knows, exactly, what it takes to push a team all the way to the Final – and up the steps to the podium. “It’s massive. There’s no reason you can’t make history. It’s right there in front of you.
“Why not us?” asked Hamid, the still-hungry veteran with a new reason to dream.
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.