There's a certain amount of pressure that comes with being an American goalkeeper, and a certain amount of responsibility too. For years, goalkeepers were the only American players that had earned international respect. Tony Meola. Kasey Keller. Brad Friedel. These were the pioneers, the players that pushed further than their predecessors, making a name for themselves and Americans abroad in the process.
To earn a place among those three legends of American soccer is a mighty task, but, as Tim Howard prepares to play in his final professional match, there's an argument to be made that American soccer is losing its best ever international export.
Howard's final career game will come on Sunday, far from the cities of Liverpool and Manchester where he truly made his name. He'll take the field one last time as a member of the Colorado Rapids in a visit to Los Angeles FC, ending a career spanning nearly 20 years, 121 international caps, countless big-game saves and one stunning World Cup effort that is still remembered as one of the most incredible international performances of all time.
“I will remember my career with joy and appreciation. It encompassed everything I thought it would be," Howard recently told reporters when honored by U.S. Soccer. "It brought heartbreak, joy, pain, love, it was everything. I think of that 2009-10 Confederations Cup team and the World Cup team, we could’ve went even farther and I’d roll up my sleeves and go to war with them every day. I take those memories with me.”
It's easy to forget that, from the beginning, Howard felt the pressure of those that came before him. The goalkeeper was spotted by U.S. Soccer as a teenager before making his MLS debut at just 19. By age 22, he was MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, and by age 24 he was starting for Manchester United, arguably the biggest club in the world at the time. It was a meteoric rise for a young goalkeeper at an age where most are honing their craft.
There were obvious ups and downs. He was replaced by Edwin van der Sar at Manchester United just two seasons after signing, leaving him at a crossroads. He found his way to Everton, initially on loan before making a permanent move, and he ended up departing the club a decade later. He made 414 total appearances for the club, the most of any player from outside of British territory. Only 12 players have worn the Everton jersey more times than Howard.
It's a status enjoyed by no other American abroad. In a world where American players often bounce around Europe, only Clint Dempsey, Friedel and Howard have ever truly found a home while away from the States. However, there's no American that has become so synonymous with a club as Howard did during his time at Goodison Park.
When it comes to pure statistics, Howard's career numbers stack up against any of the greats. As Howard steps away, he does so with 399 Premier League appearances to his name. That mark is second among Americans, with only Friedel's 450 ahead of the man that would end up being his USMNT successor. He's also eighth all time when it comes to USMNT caps, having earned more than any other goalkeeper.
In terms of clean sheets, though, Howard is, coincidentally, level with both his predecessor Friedel and Van der Sar, the man that succeeded the young American at Manchester United. Each of the three amassed 132 clean sheets in the Premier League, with only Pepe Reina, Nigel Martyn, David Seaman, Mark Schwarzer, David James and all-time leader Petr Cech ahead of them. Illustrious company, no doubt.
But Howard's legacy is about so much more than numbers or stats. It's about impact, both on and off the field, and it's about moments.
It's about that night against Belgium, a match where, despite defeat, he captured the attention of the world with one of the World Cup's best ever display. Howard's record of 15 saves will likely stand for some time, but its impact will last even longer.
In sports, there are certain moments that simply resonate differently. You can remember where you were, what you were seeing, who you were with. Howard's superhero-like performance against Belgium was one of those moments and, for a U.S. men's national team program that hasn't had much to smile about since, it remains special.
It's about clashes with Mexico and the 2009 Confederations Cup. It's about becoming just the fourth goalkeeper to score a goal in the Premier League. It's about starting the sequence that led to perhaps the USMNT's most memorable goal ever: Landon Donovan's "Go, Go USA!" moment doesn't happen without Howard's incredible throw to midfield to start the run.
“I never set out to be the greatest ever,” Howard said, according to the Denver Post. “I just wanted to follow in the footsteps of Tony Meola, Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel — the three biggest goaltenders of my generation.
"I looked up to those guys, I wanted a shirt, I just wanted to wear one. And once I got it, I wanted more. And I think successful people get a taste and they just want more. One thing is true of every single one of my 700-plus games, I just wanted more.”
So, as Howard gets set to depart, he's earned his place among the greats. He fought, he failed, he rebounded and, ultimately, he earned the respect of all who watched him. He has now become the standard to which all after him will be compared.