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As Tim Howard nears milestone, signature World Cup awaits him

The goalkeeper will play in his 100th U.S. national team match on Saturday, but it is the World Cup awaiting him in Brazil that could ultimately define his national team career.

Tim Howard will join a prestigious group on Saturday when he takes the field for his 100th U.S. men's national team appearance. He will join a list of 14 accomplished individuals, including two current members of the U.S. World Cup team (DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey).

As significant as Howard's milestone will be, and becoming just the third American goalkeeper to reach 100 caps (joining Kasey Keller and Tony Meola) does have significance, it pales in comparison to what will really go a long way in cementing his national team legacy: his performance in Brazil.

There are currently three figures on the U.S. goalkeeping Mount Rushmore: Keller, Meola and Brad Friedel. Howard has done his part to join that group, becoming the USA's career leader in wins and moving within striking distance of Keller's record of 102 caps at goalkeeper.

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What those three other goalkeepers have on their resumes are signature World Cups and World Cup matches. For Meola, being the trailblazer and starter in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups cemented his standing. Friedel stamped his place in national team legend with his outstanding showing at the 2002 World Cup, which featured some of the best goalkeeping performances in national team history. For Keller, the U.S. team's 1-1 tie against eventual World Champion Italy, a match which saw him making several key saves, capped an already impressive international career.

Howard doesn't need a signature World Cup to already have a stellar international career. His body of work as the team's starter over the past seven years has already provided him that. But if he is to move past those three goalkeepers who came before him, and secure his standing as the best goalkeeper in U.S. history, he needs the 2014 World Cup to be his World Cup.

The 2010 tournament didn't quite go as many would have hoped for Howard. He didn't commit any full-fledged blunders, but after setting such a high bar in the years leading up to the World Cup, it seemed as though he couldn't duplicate that level in South Africa. Even current U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said as much when, as a TV analyst during that tournament, he stated that Howard didn't have a very good World Cup.

While Howard would disagree with that asseessment of his 2010 performance, the reality is that he has yet to have one of his signature jaw-dropping games at a World Cup - games like his stunning display against Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals, or in the 2007 friendly against Argentina that saw him shut out Lionel Messi and friends.

There is no reason to think Howard can't conjure up that sort of jaw-dropping performance this summer in Brazil. He is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career, notching 15 shutouts in helping Everton to a fifth-place finish in the English Premier League. He put together that outstanding season a year after questions started to be raised about whether he was still the U.S. team's clear-cut starter. Brad Guzan's ascendency, coupled with what was perceived as some regression in Howard's game in 2013, led to there being some sentiment that Howard's peak had come and gone.

Howard did his best to squash such notions in the past year, playing well for both club and country and earning the steady praise of Klinsmann, who has told anyone who will listen that he firmly believes Howard is one of the five best goalkeepers in the World Cup.

Klinsmann will need Howard to be just that this summer. Perhaps more than any U.S. World Cup team since 1990, the current U.S. defense is a work in progress. And no matter which four players wind up winning the race for starting back-line places, they will need Howard to organize them, lead them, and in some cases, save them.

For all these reasons, the 2014 World Cup is a vital one for Howard. Not only because it just might be his last as a U.S. starter, but because everything is in place for him to be the driving force behind a memorable World Cup run. The kind of run that could define Howard's career and secure a legacy as the best goalkeeper in U.S. national team history.

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