Canales Daily: Howard Hits Right Note With Blues

The blue side of the Mersey turned out to be the right place for Tim Howard to find his stride in England.
By Andrea Canales

I think the only reason that American goalkeeper Tim Howard's overseas career isn't considered more of a roaring success is simply because he started out at Manchester United. At that point, his story couldn't have been more of a fairy tale.

It's still difficult to completely comprehend the enormity of going from Major League Soccer's New York team, then known as the MetroStars, to starting for Manchester United, quite possibly the world's most famous soccer club.

Yet Howard arrived with so much talent and confidence that, though only 24, he unseated World Cup goalkeeper Fabian Barthez in the net to become the first-choice keeper at Manchester United.

The scrutiny was intense. English tabloids latched on to Howard being afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, which was something that the U.S. media had never made an issue.

However, Howard's classy comeback to the puerile headlines was to seize the opportunity to show how well he was coping with the nueropsychiatric disorder and to educate others about the condition. Howard  stepped up his work as public spokesperson for the Tourette Syndrome Association. His response not only removed much of the stigma some associated with the condition, but it also encouraged many who also are affected by it.

Still, Manchester United was a cauldron of competition, and perhaps not the ideal place for a young goalkeeper who still needed to improve.

"When Tim Howard left New York, he was a young, very athletic goalkeeper," said former U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena. "He's more experienced now."

Though it boggled the mind of some, Howard was starting for Manchester United while still manning the second spot behind Kasey Keller on the U.S. national team. Arena preferred the veteran Keller between the sticks, partly because of his steadiness and consistency.

Indeed, Howard suffered something of a crisis of confidence when his form dipped somewhat during his Manchester United tenure. Yet he seemed to have fought his way through it around the time that Manchester United decided to look elsewhere and signed Dutch international Edwin Van Der Sar. Howard was unhappy with the situation partly because he had signed a contract extension with Man U, believing he would be trusted with the number 1 spot. Things worked out for him, however, when a loan was arranged with Everton and the loan was eventually converted into a permanent deal after Howard's solid work for the squad.

Still, there was probably an element of sweet payback for Howard when his two penalty shootout stops against Manchester United in the FA Cup semifinals eliminated his old squad from the tournament and sent Everton to the final with Chelsea.

"He's improved a lot - he's no longer just an athletic goalkeeper," said Arena. "He's worked hard on every aspect and he's more careful about little details, including his physical condition. He's developed as a professional."

Arena noted that other U.S. goalkeepers set the standard in this regard, as both Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller guarded their fitness carefully as the years went by. "They actually had lower body fat and mote strength as they got older, because they worked harder at those things," Arena stated.

Howard has been the undisputed U.S. number one in goal for a while now, and has yet to concede a goal in the team's final round of qualifying games.

Now that Everton will face Major League Soccer's team in the All-Star game, Howard will try to reach a unique milestone with his club - to become the first foreign team to win or even draw against the MLS All-Stars. Though the line-up changes every year and at times the players only manage one practice session together, the All-Stars have a perfect record of wins versus teams from abroad.

Though it's nothing like the pressure he faced while at Manchester United, if Howard keeps a clean sheet against a roster of players from his old league, it will mark something that Celtic, Chivas de Guadalajara, Fulham, Chelsea and West Ham have not been able to manage.

Yet in some ways, it would still rank as an accomplishment for MLS to have Howard return to the country where he started his professional career and turn aside the best in the league today. He might, in a twist that combines the full circle of how the league is designed to both develop and welcome home top players, face off against Keller, who is on pace to man the net for the MLS All-Stars.

It may not be the ideal Cinderella tale that his Manchester United career started as, but Howard's story is still a good one, and it has many chapters to go.

Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of North America