Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.
The end is now in sight for Tim Howard, the United States men’s national team legend and current Colorado Rapids goalkeeper, who announced in January that this season would mark the end of his sterling 21-year career.
What a ride it’s been for the North Brunswick, New Jersey native. Howard turned pro while he was still in high school, joined MLS the following year and went on to play more than a decade in the Premier League with Manchester United and Everton, representing the USMNT in three World Cups along the way.
Now, with just seven games remaining in the 2019 campaign, Howard is preparing for one final match in his home state when the Rapids visit the New York Red Bulls Saturday in Harrison, where he’ll have upwards of 50 friends and family members in attendance.
“I haven’t gotten the final number count yet — I’m not sure I even want to see it — but I’m sure it’ll be more than that because all my friends like to hit me up on Fridays,” Howard, who pays for the tickets himself, joked with Yahoo Sports in an interview earlier this week. “I always enjoy playing at home, but it’ll be special because it’s the last go around. I’ll try and soak it all in.”
1. The combination of Howard’s stature and affable personality makes his one of the most prominent and respected voices in American soccer, and he’s used it to carve out a side gig as a television analyst, work he’s done for the last six years. He’s a thoughtful guy, and as such, I wanted to get his take on a number of things. One of those was what he’d like to see change within the sport in the U.S. This was his response:
“I think black people and brown people and low socioeconomic families in this country miss out for various reasons,” Howard said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of minority faces in our stands, and that’s at national team games and the MLS level. I think that’s clear as day. You go stand on the field and try to pick out the amount of minorities that watch soccer in this country, it’s a very low number.
“So I think from my standpoint we’re missing that,” he added. “There’s a very small number of minority youth coaches in this country, and a low number of minority players that come through the system. I had a magic wand, gosh, that’s something I would try to change overnight. For me it’s a big thing because look, let’s face it, in the rest of the world, this game is played in slums, in favelas and on dirt pitches.”
2. Howard had plenty to say on a host of other big-picture topics, but before getting into those I wanted to know about his final season. It’s been an awful year for Colorado, which has won just seven of its 27 matches and has conceded 54 goals, second-worst among MLS’s 24 clubs.
3. “I’ve cherished every moment,” Howard said. “There’s obviously frustrations when things aren’t going according to plan, but I still appreciate the fact that I can play and perform. And I love to compete, whether I’m getting my teeth kicked in or I’m on top of the mountain. It’s what gets me out of bed every morning.”
4. For many American soccer fans, Howard’s record-setting 15-save performance in the USMNT’s extra-time loss to Belgium in the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup will be the lasting memory. How about for him?
5. “In terms of singular moments, that’s certainly up there,” Howard said. “People like to talk to me about that and that’s special, and I think it’ll become more special as time goes on. But for me, more than anything, it’s my longevity in the game, the amount of games that I played.
“When we’re talking about more than 700 games, it’s hard to say that one was the most epic,” continued Howard, who won an FA Cup and played in the Champions League with Man United, and who faced Liverpool in 20-plus Merseyside Derbies with the Toffees. “I feel like in a bunch of the uniforms I’ve worn, I can pick out singular moments or games that meant a ton.”
6. The Rapids made news this week when they hired former defender Robin Fraser as the club’s new coach. Conor Casey had been running the team on an interim basis since Anthony Hudson was fired in May. It’s former Toronto FC No. 2 Fraser’s second head job in MLS; he spent the 2011 and 2012 seasons with now-defunct Chivas USA.
7. “Conor Casey did a tremendous job in righting the ship under very difficult circumstances,” Howard said. “In Robin’s case, he obviously had a ton of success in Toronto. It says big things about the club and the direction that we’re trying to go. I’m excited, I think the fan base is excited, the people in the club are. And as for this team, we still have enough games left to try to implement what it is Robin is looking to do, ultimately looking toward the future.”
8. Howard, 40, made his MLS debut back in 1998, when the fledgling league had just 12 teams and zero soccer-specific stadiums. He returned to a far bigger and more mature operation in 2016, but MLS has grown considerably even since. After all, the current conference leaders, Atlanta United and LAFC, didn’t exist three years ago.
9. “I think we’ve crossed over now into more mainstream America and fans of other sports,” said Howard, who is part-owner of USL side Memphis 901. “The fan bases have grown, the game has grown in popularity. What Atlanta is doing, winning a third trophy in three years, getting the attendance numbers that they have, shows the game is growing at an incredible rate. I think you’re also seeing the USL grow, because there’s a trickledown effect to what MLS is doing. And so I think American soccer is probably in the best place it’s ever been. You look at the players we’re developing. It’s a testament to the money that’s been put into the league.”
10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney and DaMarcus Beasley all offered public suggestions to improve MLS in recent weeks. Beasley and Ibrahimovic voiced support for implementing promotion and relegation, while Rooney took aim at restrictions on charter flights. What’s Howard’s take?
11. “I defer to Zlatan,” Howard laughed. “I think relegation and promotion is good thing, but I don’t think that’s sustainable in our current model. Obviously you have to have the infrastructure for that. So that’s a no, that’s out. I think when we develop players — and I have a young daughter going through development now at her level — I think we do a very poor job in grassroots player development in this country.”
12. Beasley, the Houston Dynamo left back and Howard’s teammate at the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is also retiring this fall. “He’s top-five greatest American players of all time, easy,” Howard said. “He was electrifying as a young kid, a tricky winger who score goals and deliver crosses. And ultimately he humbled himself when he saw an opportunity to move to left back, which is not a glamour position. But he made it his own. He was one of the greatest teammates, and he was counted on every game.”
13. Beasley doesn’t seem to get the recognition he deserves despite winning titles in the U.S., the Netherlands and Scotland; playing in the Premier League, Bundesliga and Liga MX; and being the only American man to appear in four World Cups. Another guy who doesn’t get enough respect — and I’ve said this often — is Jozy Altidore.
14. When U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said Wednesday that he was allowing Altidore (and fellow vets Michael Bradley and Omar Gonzalez) to remain with Toronto FC for the upcoming international window, the reaction was predictable.
15. Still just 29, Altidore has 42 international goals in 115 games — a better strike rate than Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey. His last nine goals for his country (and 11 of his last 13) have come in FIFA World Cup qualifiers or Gold Cup games, and he remains the top forward in the U.S. player pool. At this moment, no other striker is even close. Yet an embarrassing number of (so-called) U.S. fans continue to insist that the national team would be better off without him.
16. I asked Howard if he thinks the color of Altidore’s and Beasley’s skin — both are black — has anything to do with how the pair are viewed by supporters. He doesn’t. But what he said about the Altidore-bashing in particular was interesting.
17. “When you talk about fans — and I’m a New York Knicks fan, for my sins — sometimes you love or hate a player based on some mythical opinion you form of them,” Howard said. “And for whatever reason, Jozy has been seen as this polarizing figure that people love to hate. The fact of the matter is the numbers are there. He’s a brilliant teammate, and he’s a guy you can count on. Sometimes fans form opinions that are just plucked out of the sky. And that’s OK. Sometimes you get the good end of that, where people think you can do no wrong.”
18. So what’s next for Howard? He’ll start working UEFA Champions League broadcasts for Turner Sports again next month. And he’ll take on an expanded ownership role with his USL club in Memphis, his longtime offseason home.
“Being there day-to-day and being hands-on, it’s the closest you’re going to get to playing in terms of helping build a team and an organization,” he said. “It’s going to keep me plenty busy.”
19. Any regrets along the way? “Thousands,” Howard said. “As a goalkeeper you’re at the mercy of every goal and every criticism, but those are not things that keep me up at night. There’s always regrets, but the good times certainly outweigh the bad. Things have been pretty good.”
20. At 36, Chris Wondolowski is tied with Gyasi Zardes as the top USMNT-eligible scorer in MLS with 11 goals, good for ninth in the Golden Boot race, although Wondo has played three fewer games. (Altidore has 10 goals in 17 appearances for TFC this season.)
21. Berhalter said he was “a little bit disappointed” that many MLS teams still opt to ignore FIFA windows. "I understand their situation of not wanting to play midweek games,” he said. “But it also puts us in a difficult spot.” It doesn’t figure to get much better next year. While the MLS season is slated to begin a bit earlier, in late February, there will also be two new teams and an expanded Leagues Cup, which will eat up even more dates.
22. Michael Bradley weighed in on the issue on Thursday. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s the worst part about the league, the fact that teams play through FIFA dates,” Bradley said. “While you trying to give everything you have for your club team and the national team, there’s too many moments where you’re missing something.
“It’s got to be one of the next steps for the league...it always comes back to scheduling issues and all this. I get it. But it has to be something where it gets worked around because you can’t have the rest of the world respecting the FIFA calendar and there still being full slates of MLS games. It’s not the right way to do things.”
23. MLS officials have pointed out that clubs are not required to play during FIFA windows. I have no idea why Toronto would agree to play two away games early next month given the composition of its roster. While Altidore, Bradley and Gonzalez will stick around for crucial tilts at Cincinnati and New York City FC, Canadian internationals Jonathan Osorio, Liam Fraser and Richie Laryea won’t be available.
24. With U.S. games to cover, this column always respects international windows. See you in two weeks.
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