Washington (AFP) - Americans are embracing their newest superhero: Team USA's goalkeeper Tim Howard, whose on-pitch pluck and defiance in an excruciating World Cup loss electrified his home nation.
Memes featuring the 35-year-old Howard exploded on the Internet, politicians clamored to praise him and Wikipedia trolls even momentarily named him the US secretary of defense after his record 16 saves against Belgium.
"Tim Howard could've saved my parents' marriage," quipped one Twitter user who, like many, was in awe of the Everton keeper's spectacular shot-blocking.
Howard's scintillating effort singlehandedly kept the underdog Americans in contention in their round-of-16 match against Belgium, and cemented his spot as the nation's best-ever keeper.
While the US squad eventually succumbed 2-1 in extra time, Howard's performance earned him an avalanche of accolades in a nation that traditionally obsesses more over baseball, basketball and American football.
Howard worship dominated the social media conversation even before the first half of Tuesday's match ended in Salvador.
Vice President Joe Biden hailed him as "most valuable player in the World Cup," and he won gushing praise from congressional leaders, basketball icon Kobe Bryant, and even his Belgian opponents.
"Two words.. Tim Howard," Belgian center back Vincent Kompany posted on Twitter after the match.
- Secretary of Defense -
Wikipedia trolls momentarily replaced US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's name and photograph with Howard's.
Tweeters were calling for "Tim Howard for president" -- or for him to be placed on the US-Mexico border to block illegal immigration. Some said he was "better at defending the country" than President Barack Obama.
A petition to the White House to rename Washington's main domestic airport "Tim Howard National Airport" had nearly 4,000 signatures by mid-morning.
A meme fest ensued, with images of Howard's countenance on Mount Rushmore or the $1 bill, or in goal wearing giant Mickey Mouse-style white gloves.
And -- because it's the Internet -- a diving Howard can be seen blocking the exposure of Janet Jackson's nipple during her famed "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl.
But for all the humor, there was genuine praise ricocheting across the United States, where many major newspapers featured Howard on their front pages Wednesday, writing how another gritty performance by him and his teammates marked a turning point for US soccer.
"It's been special, and that's been part of this amazing journey," Howard told CNN early Wednesday.
"But also being able to captivate the imagination and hopes and dreams of a nation is really certainly part of that ride."
Howard did not comment on whether he would give it another go between the sticks for Team USA in the 2018 World Cup, but he left the door open.
Thanks to his soaring popularity and stature, the New Jersey-born keeper -- who lives with Tourette's syndrome -- will have every opportunity to help advance the causes of his choosing.
"He will always be a hero to the Tourette syndrome community," the Tourette Syndrome Association said on its website.
Bald, bearded, tattooed, and with rock-star good looks, Howard will likely have his pick of commercial endorsements when he returns stateside.
So what's next for the newly minted superstar?
"Take it in stride," he told CNN.
"I'm going to go home and I'm going to relax and hide away, hang out with the kids, get some more tattoos -- just be me."
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