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Everton's Howard thirsts for FA Cup

LONDON – Away from the soccer field Tim Howard is a mild-mannered individual, but there is one subject that makes him bristle.

Everton's USA international goalkeeper accepts that his team is the underdog going into Saturday's FA Cup final. Try suggesting Howard and his colleagues will be facing Mission: Impossible against Chelsea, however, and an indignant response follows.

Howard's confidence that Everton can spring an upset and end a 14-year wait for a major trophy is built on solid foundations. David Moyes' side is the only team Chelsea has faced this season that it has not scored against, with both English Premier League encounters between the sides finishing in 0-0 draws.

Those results were two of Howard's club record-breaking 16 clean sheets for the season, as Everton produced an outstanding campaign to finish in fifth place.

While the monopoly of English soccer's Big Four (Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool) remains intact, Everton has separated itself from the chasing pack, having finished out of the top six just once in the past five seasons.

Howard, originally from North Brunswick, N.J., has evolved into one of Everton's cornerstones and is now established as one of the outstanding goalkeepers in the EPL.

"He is definitely one of the top three in the league," said Everton captain Phil Neville. "When you look at the top three you would say Edwin Van der Sar [Manchester United], David James [Portsmouth] and Tim."

Howard's arrival in England in 2003, when he moved from the MetroStars of Major League Soccer to Manchester United, was a step into one of the most poisonous jobs in the EPL. United head coach Sir Alex Ferguson had long despaired over his inability to find a suitable replacement for 1990s superstar Peter Schmeichel and Howard was the latest in a long line of goalkeepers who tried to fill those illustrious boots.

The English media lapped up the story of Howard's Tourette's syndrome with poor taste – "United's Swearing Saviour" screamed one ignorant tabloid headline. Such inaccuracies – Howard's condition is largely under control and does not involve involuntary swearing – only added pressure onto the young American as he sought to get established in England.

Howard did well enough in his first season to be named to an all-EPL first XI by his fellow professionals. But Ferguson's propensity to cut goalkeepers short shrift was tested when Howard made a costly error in a vital Champions League game in 2004, which cost him his place in the side.

He regained his place in time for the 2004 FA Cup final, when he became the first American to lift the distinguished trophy.

After an ongoing battle for a permanent place in the side, Howard eventually appeared to have secured the No.1 spot in the United pecking order, and signed a new contract after the 2005-06 season. But just weeks later Ferguson bought Van der Sar, prompting a furious response from Howard.

As it turned out, it would be a blessing. Howard's transfer to Everton followed, a switch that invigorated his career.

Moyes has made Howard one of the crucial building blocks in his attempt to create a team laced with unity and harmony.

"This club has been good for me and for my career," Howard said. "I have developed as a player since I have been here and I want to see Everton rewarded for the progress we have made by winning a trophy."

Moyes has come to rely on Howard as a figure of stability in a team that prides itself on organization and consistency.

"Tim has had a fantastic season and he is a big player for us," Moyes said. "There are no holes in his game; he is just a first-rate, quality keeper.

"He has a stabilizing effect on our defense and he has proven himself for several years now."

Moyes deserves an opportunity to lead a team in the Champions League and has been linked with the Chelsea job if Carlo Ancelotti doesn't make the switch from Milan to west London in the summer.

Either way, Howard's future at Goodison Park is secure, having signed through 2013. Fully established at the club, Howard is hungry for silverware.

"We believe we have a good chance against Chelsea and that we match up against them pretty well," Howard said. "Of course, when you look at the players they have then people will consider them the favorite but all I know is that we are feeling good."

The west London club was the only team to come close to knocking eventual champion Barcelona out of the Champions League, only being denied by a last-second strike from Barca's Andres Iniesta in the second leg.

Since Guus Hiddink took over Chelsea has lost only once and is hungry to ensure it does not end the season empty-handed. Everton also has the disadvantage of being without injured stars Mikel Arteta, Phil Jagielka and Yakubu Aiyegbeni.

Coming into the final as an underdog is a novelty for Howard. In his previous Cup final appearance he and United were a heavy favorite and dispatched Millwall 3-0 with a minimum of fuss.

"It would mean more to me to win it this time," Howard said. "It was a special experience to win it back then but because of what this would mean to Everton I feel it would be bigger."