Seth Vertelney: Is Tim Howard the greatest American goalkeeper ever?

The U.S. goalkeeper had a legendary performance against Belgium, but where does he stand among the all-time American greats?
Heading into the 2014 World Cup, Tim Howard had already cemented himself as one of the best American goalkeepers ever.
Following his Herculean performance against Belgium in the USA’s World Cup swansong, it’s tempting to say that Howard has separated himself as the greatest of them all.

He may yet one day be the undisputed king of American shot-stoppers but for now, the debate is still muddled. It’s not a knock on Howard, but more a recognition of the incredible careers enjoyed by those who came before him.

The case for Howard as the best the USA has ever had between the sticks is strong, and continues to grow.

During the World Cup, Howard became the most capped American goalkeeper ever, passing Kasey Keller with his 103rd appearance for the national team against Germany. Just weeks earlier, Howard passed Keller again – this time, earning his record 54th win in a friendly against Nigeria.

Howard is one of three American goalkeepers to be the starter at two World Cups, and the only one to lead his team out of the group stage both times. He became the U.S. leader in World Cup caps among modern-era goalkeepers against Belgium, with his eighth appearance.

Lest we forget his contributions in other international tournaments as well – namely the 2007 Gold Cup and especially the 2009 Confederations Cup, where he led the U.S. to a shock final appearance en route to winning the Golden Glove as the tournament’s best goalkeeper.

At club level, the 35-year-old’s resume is impressive, and only continues to grow. He made the PFA Premier League Team of the Year in 2003-04 – his first season as starter at Manchester United. Following a move to Everton in 2006, he’s been an ever-present in goal for the Toffees, and is coming off arguably the finest season of his career.

It’s been an incredible career so far. But is Howard the best ever?

First off, recognition must be bestowed upon Tony Meola, a pioneer of modern-era American goalkeepers. Meola earned 100 caps for the national team, starting in both the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. His aggressive style and trademark ponytail inspired a generation of would-be netminders.

But Meola didn’t have the club career that Howard, Keller and Brad Friedel have all enjoyed, separating the trio as the three best our country has ever produced.

At club level, Friedel is the most accomplished of that trio. He matched Howard by making one appearance on the PFA Premier League Team of the Year, doing so in 2002-03.

Longevity is what sets Friedel apart, however. He’s the all-time Premier League leader in consecutive appearances with 310. Amazingly, at 43, Friedel just signed a one-year contract extension with Tottenham for the 2014-15 season.

In contrast to his club career, Friedel did not have as lengthy of a stint with the U.S. national team, opting to retire from international duty in 2005. He made the most of his 82 caps, however, most memorably when he led the USA to the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup, saving penalty kicks in consecutive games in the group stage.

Keller had an outstanding club career as well, which included over 300 appearances in England, plus stints in La Liga and the German Bundesliga, before finishing with his hometown Seattle Sounders.

It was on the international scene that Keller truly shined, however.

Like Meola and Howard, Keller started at two World Cups (1998 and 2006), and reached triple digits in caps. He was twice named Honda Player of the Year (now Futbol de Primera Player of the Year) and was the U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year three times – more than any player not named Landon Donovan.

Keller also has his own “Howard against Belgium” moment, and it even came in a winning effort. His incredible performance in the USA’s 1-0 win over Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup prompted Brazilian legend Romario to say: “That is the best performance by a goalkeeper I have ever seen.”

Howard’s place in American soccer history is secure, but crowning him the country’s finest ever goalkeeper is hardly an open and shut case, as both Friedel and Keller can claim to have accomplished more in various aspects of their careers.

Howard, though, has plenty more to give. At 35, he just signed a four-year contract extension with Everton. He’ll be 39 at the next World Cup, so becoming the first American to start at three World Cups is hardly out of the question.

In 2014, it’s still up in the air. In four years, though, there may be no doubt as to the identity of the USA’s greatest ever goalkeeper.