Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Tim Howard

You Shall Not Pass
Here's something that you're not going to read, in all likelihood.

The world will little note nor long remember the 2014 US Men's National Team. They made the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup, but they lost their last two games against obviously superior competition, with very little possession. They lost to a Belgium team that has the talent to win the entire tournament, but probably won't, because there are teams playing better than them right now, and they need erratic striker Romelu Lukaku to get special goals, the kind that are the only ones that seem to show up at this stage of the tournament, in every game, and he won't.

What we will remember, and what anyone with a heart will remember, is Tim Howard.

In what is likely to be the last time that anyone will see him on such a stage, the 35-year-old goalie had 16 saves, the most in a World Cup game in the past 50 years. He kept the Belgians off the scoreboard for the entirety of regulation, and the two goals in extra time were utterly beyond reproach. He dove, he punched, he led, he fought like one of the best in the world, which is what he is. At the end of the night, Belgium had 38 shots to 14 for the U.S., and honestly, the disparity felt even wider than that.

As the game got progressively more one-sided, and the Belgians just kept going through the defense with relative ease, Howard kept them in it for minute after minute. After the Belgians got their first goal, the chances actually got even better for them, and so did Howard. Goalies in futbol rarely have this kind of impact; the net is just too damned big, and if the striker does his job correctly, it's going in the net no matter what. And yet, from watching the game, Howard seemed to not get the memo. His lines were immaculate, his legs just long enough on any number of splits and dives, and you kept wondering if somehow Belgium would punch itself out with all of the quality chances, and give the U.S. a chance on a theft counter for the win. And well, that's almost exactly what happened, but suspect striker Chris Wondolowski (really, we couldn't have Landon Donovan?) whiffed. Honestly, an ordinary goalie has the US losing in a rout.

And after Belgium went up 2-0, and the team got a lift from the insertion of a 19-year-old Julian Green and his talented fresh legs, the defense got even worse, since the team had no choice but to throw more numbers forward to try to get the tying goal, and send it to penalty kicks. And since this is futbol, and the nature of futbol is heartache, I'm also a little relieved, since seeing Howard lose in a penalty kick situation (probably 1-0, given how much his team supported him for the first 105 minutes of play tonight) would have been even worse.

I'm sad to see the US leave the tournament. A stolen win would have kept them alive for four more days, and we would have gotten Howard vs. the world's best player, Argentina's Lionel Messi, in the next round. It would have given everyone even more chances to appreciate the man.

Finally, there's this. Howard is just a goalie, he's not a metaphor. He doesn't think about being 35 and in a World Cup, where his best offensive teammate is nearly young enough to be his kid. So he's not looking at the game as the proud soldier defending to the last, against the fading of the light, against the death of hope, against the inevitable.

A certain poignancy, a certain nobility, and an almost impossible to resist narrative.

Tim Howard. Just the best.

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