RUSTENBURG, South Africa – With the public back home tuning into the rarest of American sporting events – a must-see futbol game – U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati openly hoped for a "water cooler" moment to boost the profile of his sport. Gulati didn't get the upset victory in USA's World Cup opener, but first-time viewers will at least say this about Saturday's 1-1 draw with England on Monday morning:
That England goalkeeper is really bad.
And that U.S. goalkeeper is really good.
Tim Howard anchored an American defense that rebounded from a goal just four minutes into the game and frustrated England's powerful attack the rest of the way, making save after save to earn Man of the Match honors. The seven-save performance had to remind the U.S. viewing public of another superb goalie the last time they tuned into a big national team game – Ryan Miller, the MVP of the Winter Olympic silver medal-winning men's hockey team in Vancouver.
"I think a lot of people will understand how good Timmy is," Gulati said. "He was obviously very good tonight."
While Howard was the hero for the USA, Green was the goat for England after misplaying Clint Dempsey's long-distance shot into his own net for a 40th-minute tying goal. But it appeared Howard wasn't going to be on the field to watch that spectacular blunder when burly striker Emile Heskey slid his cleats into the arm and rib cage of Howard around the half-hour mark.
Howard laid on the grass for several minutes while being attended to by the training staff.
"When the trainers came out, I was concerned whether he was going to stay in or not," said Oguchi Onyewu, who looked like his old self while dominating in central defense with the exceptional Jay DeMerit.
"Tim is a fighter and he's in this for the team and he's going to push himself to the limit for us. I'm happy he was able to stay on the field and give us the performance that he did."
"Tim doesn’t usually get hurt, so when he goes down you know something is wrong," Landon Donovan said. "I wasn't sure if he would be able to keep playing. It looked like he was in a lot of pain. But he's a competitor. He's a gamer."
Howard may have to miss the next match. The official injury is bruised ribs and Howard will be evaluated again on Sunday. Howard admitted to having some doubt about his status for the USA's second group game against Slovenia on Friday.
"It's sore. It's going to be a few days," Howard said. "I hope I'll be fit. I don't know."
Facing Slovenia without Howard will be a heavy price for salvaging a point against England. Despite the return of the solid partnership in central defense with Onyewu and DeMerit, the Americans need the luxury of Howard's presence in net to even have a chance at duplicating last summer's miracle run at the Confederations Cup, the World Cup warmup event in South Africa.
If Howard can't play, coach Bob Bradley would likely turn to back-up Marcus Hahnemann, who is coming off a solid season with Wolverhampton Wanderers in the English Premier League.
"Timmy never wants to come out," Bradley said. "Now we'll assess over the next few days how he's feeling."
As much pain as Howard was in, he couldn't feel as bad as his counterpart, Green, whose monumental mistake was just the latest in a long line of England keeper embarrassments. Maybe it was another example of the unpredictability of the new World Cup ball, which has been the bane of every goalkeeper's existence in the run-up to the tournament.
"As we've said all week long, this ball is doing silly things," Howard said. "Unfortunately, those things happen. … I feel terrible for him. [But] with goalkeeping, you have to have broad shoulders."
No one had broader shoulders than Howard on Saturday, and even novice American soccer fans could be grateful for that.
- Tim Howard