On July 1, 2014, the soccer world witnessed what Everton fans had known for years—Tim Howard is a game-changer. In the World Cup round of 16 in Salvador, Brazil, the American goalkeeper had a record 16 saves as the United States Men’s National Team fell to Belgium 2-1 in extra time. Seven years later, Howard’s performance in the World Cup remains one of the games fans most remember, but for the supporters in The Street End, the North Brunswick, New Jersey native only added to what had been a historic career for the Toffees, solidifying his place among the best keepers in the game.
“I appreciate it now more than ever,” Howard said about the Belgium game in an interview with the Florida Cup. “Very few times as an athlete do you get a shining moment. You have good moments, you have good careers, but that one singular moment that everybody can pick out, and so I’m really appreciative that I was able to have that.”
While soccer fans stood, eyes transfixed to their TVs from bars or living rooms in the states or England or elsewhere, arms tingling as Howard turned aside numerous attacks from the Belgians, among them Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, and his Everton teammate Romelu Lukaku, Howard was too entangled in the zone to notice he was making history. “My job isn’t and never was to feel like I’m trying to articulate a moment in a moment,” he said. “My job is to first organize a defense and then to make a save.”
Outplayed for much of the game, the Americans relied on Howard’s experience and shot-stopping abilities to keep Belgium off the board through ninety minutes. “In that game, it was continuing to try to solve puzzles. This was the golden generation of Belgium at their beginning where you’re thinking oh my god this team could be world beaters and it was wave after wave. And we’re trying to collectively as a back four plus a six or whatever, trying to figure out how do we stop this beast, and they continued to come but the job didn’t change.”
It wasn’t until the game was over that Howard learned of the significance of his performance from a sideline reporter. Howard was still embroiled in his emotions, the adrenaline, and mental and physical exhaustion following three extra-time goals, a potential American winner that sailed wide at the end of regulation, and a crafty free-kick sequence that nearly tied the game in the closing seconds. “I heard what he said and said yeah, sure. It didn’t register even then because my mind wouldn’t allow me to remember 16 saves. I remember it was just a soccer game, a couple saves, a couple goal kicks, a couple goals, so I didn’t really know it until much further out.”
For Howard, the path to earning 121 caps for his country, eighth all-time, wasn’t always filled with Man of the Matches, Golden Gloves, and SportsCenter spotlights. During a time when the journey for most American soccer prodigies went through either college or the prestigious Bradenton residency, Howard went from the U.S. youth national team to the New Jersey Imperials in the United Soccer League before getting scooped up by the New York/New Jersey Metrostars in the early days of Major League Soccer. He made his MLS debut in 1998 against the Colorado Rapids in August and started eight games the following season while also playing for the U-20 national team. He became a regular starter in 2000 and 2001, earning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honors in 2001 with a 1.33 goals against average.
That’s when Manchester United came knocking. “I was so young,” he said about his start in the Premier League. “It was a feather in my cap. I could have lived off the interest alone. I didn’t have to sign a contract or get a transfer. Just being able to tell my kids there was this time when Manchester United was interested in me would have been cool enough.”
Howard signed with United in 2003 and made his first appearances in America, including a preseason homecoming at Giants Stadium against Juventus. He then led United to a Charity Shield win over Arsenal in his first official game, stopping two penalties in the shootout to secure the title. A run of strong performances and success followed, with United winning the FA Cup and Howard earning PFA Team of the Year honors. But after Howard’s last-second rebound in 2004’s round of 16 loss to Porto in the Champions League doomed United’s hopes of advancing, perhaps the image of José Mourinho running down the sideline to join the celebration may have been harder for manager Alex Ferguson to erase. Howard battled with Roy Carroll the following season before Edwin van der Sar’s arrival pushed him to number two. “Things worked out there for a while and then as football does it moves very quickly,” he said. “I needed to find my feet. I was only three years into my Premier League career, I was a baby, only 26 years old, I needed to figure out what was next for me.”
David Moyes brought Howard to Everton on loan for the 2006-07 season, and Howard’s ability, work ethic, and perseverance won Everton fans over, but not before a return trip home that included a game against the MLS All Stars. “My first preseason with Everton was in America,” he said. “I signed with the club coming off the back of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Our first preseason was here. It’s great. Everton has such a massive following in America with all the Evertonians here who support the club.”
Howard found a permanent home with the Toffees for the next decade, amassing over 400 appearances in all competitions, including a club-high 28 European games. Everton finished sixth in his first season and fifth his next two, qualifying for the UEFA Cup three years in a row. In 2008-09, Everton finished runners-up in the FA Cup during which Howard stopped two penalties against his former club in the semifinal. With 20 clean sheets, Howard set a club record for a single season, and over the next several years, he set another club record for 210 consecutive Premier League appearances.
“I’m really proud of a lot of things we achieved and some of the milestones we had in terms of our clean sheet record,” Howard said, emphasizing the team’s continuity during his time as a key to Everton’s success. “The back four picked itself for nearly eight years, and then when Joleon Lescott left Sylvain Distin came right in. At right back you had Tony Hibbert or Séamus Coleman. And then Jags and Bainsey. You don’t get that lucky.”
Howard said there are many qualities that make Everton attractive for American fans still searching for an English team to support. “Everton’s always been, as David Moyes termed the club, ‘The People’s Club’. It’s a part of the street. It’s a part of the neighborhood. It’s what defines the club. It’s a working-class club. There’s so many attributes to that that people can get behind.”
And for Howard, who himself had to work on his craft from the youth levels on up, even while battling the symptoms of OCD and Tourette Syndrome that he described in his autobiography The Keeper: A Life of Saving Goals and Achieving Them, settling in at Everton didn’t feel as if he’d traveled too far away from his Jersey roots. “It’s something with spending ten years there, I often understood that the people who support Everton are just like everybody else, you and I. They come from humble backgrounds, worked their way up, never really given anything. Outside of football, that’s a compelling reason that people have come up to me and said that’s why they support the club. They see it. There’s no fluff, there’s no gloss that’s over it that Everton tries to be something they aren’t. They’re always true to their heritage and people are drawn to that.”
With a number of American stars appearing for the club over the past two decades, including Preki, Joe-Max Moore, Brian McBride, and Landon Donovan, Americans have had a growing relationship with the Toffees, with Howard’s tenure contributing the most. Fans still let him know how they were drawn to the club, even recently in New York while he was with his son.
“I don’t want to give myself too much credit,” he said, referring to his influence in shaping an American path toward the Premier League. “It fills me with an incredible sense of pride when an American soccer fan will tell me I support Everton because of you. You can imagine what the club means to me and to have a fan basically inherit the club because of me giving my heart and soul to it. There’s not a lot of things that mean more to me that than when it comes to fans.”
Although he retired from the game in 2020, Howard continues to stay busy. He currently serves as Everton’s ambassador to the United States, and he’ll make several appearances at the Florida Cup. He also splits his time as a TV analyst and as Sporting Director and Minority Owner of Memphis 901 FC in the USL, where he made his final appearances as a pro.
But Howard hasn’t forgotten the memories of Goodison Park ahead of a Merseyside derby.
“A bag of nerves,” he said. “You hear Z-Cars obviously coming out of the tunnel. You hear the roar. The reds are quite loud at Goodison in the corner. Lot of chanting back and forth. You can cut the tension with a knife. You can feel it, you see it on the players’ faces. There’s no smiling. Any of the twenty-two players that walk out, emerge from the tunnel, it is business, it is beyond business, these are family loyalties, city loyalties, everything is split right down the middle. It’s a very tense occasion. The person next to you is wringing their hands, screaming at the top of their lungs. The Merseyside derby, for me, it’s such a special occasion."