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U.S. team, fans may not fully appreciate Tim Howard until he's gone

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SAO PAULO – There are flecks of gray now in his goatee. The head is shorn clean of course, the battle against a receding hairline long since surrendered.

At age 35, Tim Howard isn't old, per se, but soccer is a young man's game. These days he looks at the kids on the U.S. Soccer team, one still just a teenager, as they hang together in the player's lounge or wait to dine together and he isn't always sure he knows everything that's going on.

"They've trained hard, they've not made too much noise," Howard said of the next generation. "That's what you want."

He was on the U.S. Olympic team way back in 2000. He was a backup in the 2006 World Cup. Since then he's been the rock of the men's national team, a star in net and a leader around the program, someone with stature, perspective and ability.

He's a good guy, his teammates will tell you in a way that isn't just an empty phrase. No, he's just a really, really good guy. Like a seriously good dude.

"Tim is a great friend," midfielder Michael Bradley said.

"Timmy is one of my best friends," former team captain Carlos Bocanegra said.

"He's a great guy," backup keeper Nick Rimando said. "Somebody that everybody can get along with and will give to anybody."

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Tim Howard fields questions from the media on Saturday. (Getty)

Tim Howard fields questions from the media on Saturday. (Getty)

Howard wasn't too into introspection here Saturday, as the U.S. went through practice in advance of Tuesday's knockout stage game against Belgium (4 p.m. ET). First, the focus is on the game and little more. Second, the most valuable lesson of goalkeeping is to never look back on anything – "whether [a play is] good or bad, I could care less. I move on."

And third, the stakes for Howard personally are obvious.

This is likely Howard's last chance with the national team, at least almost assuredly at World Cup level. He already has more international appearances (103) than any goalkeeper in program history, passing his buddy Kasey Keller with the game against Germany. He's now 10th overall in caps for any player.

He didn't need the reminder Friday from coach Jurgen Klinsmann about the urgency of the opportunity at hand, and how for some of the older players on the team – "this might be their last moment in the World Cup," the coach said.

"That's not lost on me," Howard said. "I already knew that, and I think most of the older guys kind of appreciate the enormity of the tournament … that's something we appreciate. I can't really think of next week or the next four years.

"We've been trying to take it day by day and we've done a good job."

What Howard has brought on the field is obvious to any fan – the steady, calm presence behind a forever-rotating group of field players, the brilliant athletic ability, the long arms and huge, strong hands that make him seem even bigger than 6-foot-3.

He's made brilliant, if sometimes easy to overlook, plays on defense – his diving save in the first half against Portugal to keep the U.S. in striking distance at 1-0 may be the underrated play of this Cup for the Americans.

He's done the same on offense – his aggressive and long leading throw four years ago against Algeria flipped the field and set up the four-on-two American rush that ended, eventually, with Landon Donovan banging home the famed game-winner.

Around U.S. Soccer, they talk about everything else, too. He came out of New Jersey pursuing a career as a pro soccer player when he could've taken the well-traveled path and gone to play college basketball.

By age 24, he was a keeper for Manchester United, the most famed club in the world, serving as a beacon to kids dreaming back home that maybe they too could play with the best of the best in the world. In 2007, he went to Everton and established himself among the game's finest. Klinsmann routinely declares him one the five best goalkeepers on the planet.

"I don't know," he said of Klinsmann's assessment. "I don't want to get caught up in that. It doesn't matter to me, that's just opinion. I feel like I'm playing well. At 35, I feel as fit as I've ever been, as strong as I've ever been. I'm seeing the game at a slower pace, which helps, the game slows down.

"That's all that's important to me, where I match up at the end of the day."

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Team USA has relied heavily on goalkeeper Tim Howard the past two World Cups. (AP)

Team USA has relied heavily on goalkeeper Tim Howard the past two World Cups. (AP)

He recently signed a four-year deal to stay at Everton until age 39. And no offense to Major League Soccer or returning to the States, but he said he prefers the elite competition, the over-the-top environment, the daily challenges of the English Premier League.

Right now it is all about Belgium though. He sleeps as much as possible. He tries to never miss a training session. He isn't walking around trying to soak in the experience, he's just relentless in preparation about extending it. That includes telling his younger teammates what's coming.

"The Belgium game there is only one result that matters," Howard said. "There's nothing else so, hopefully we don't play too tight. The moment and the enormity of situations sometimes puts a lot of pressure on players. It just depends how we handle it. But I think we've been really loose … hopefully we will be prepared and the moment won't be too big for us."

Howard will go down as one of the all-time greats for the United States; a career of excellence that probably won’t be fully appreciated and celebrated until it's over. He's so consistently strong that it feels like he’s often taken for granted.

It is a career that also fell in what is, perhaps, a transitional time historically for the national team. In 2006, the U.S. was eliminated in group play. In 2010, they got to the round of 16 in exciting fashion only to lose. ("The sting of failure's the same," Howard said.)

Now, who knows … all Howard can say is that of all the U.S. teams he’s played on, this is the best.

"From where I am at in the back I get a broader view of things and it just seems like our passing has been more fluid," he said. "We've opened teams up. Like, in particular, the Portugal game they gave us a lot of the ball to sit back and yet somehow we found space in behind them, which, if you're going to sit back and give us time, that shouldn't happen. So credit to us.

"We've been using the ball well," he continued. "We've been more confident in possession trying to get forward. It just seems as if we're in a good rhythm."

There’s no time like the present for Tim Howard, about as good as this country has ever produced.

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