SALVADOR, Brazil – Tim Howard was named man of the match as the United States was knocked out of the World Cup on Tuesday, an accolade he completely deserved but would trade away in a heartbeat for a win.
The U.S. goalkeeper was a beast – diving, leaping, flying through the air and positioning himself perfectly – but was powerless to prevent Belgium’s 2-1 victory that sent the Americans home from Brazil.
Recognition as the standout performer on the field was entirely justified, but in no way did the personal credit take the edge off the disappointment he felt at the U.S.’ exit.
[Photos: Heartbroken Team USA fans]
“None of that really matters to me,” Howard said. “It is part of the job. It hurts when we lose, whether I had no saves or 20 saves, it doesn’t mean any more or less.”
With someone other than Howard minding the American net things could have quickly gotten ugly at the Arena Fonte Nova. His 16 saves are the most on record during a World Cup match and his performance made him only the third player in this tournament to win man of the match while being on the losing team.
“Huge,” said defender Matt Besler, when asked about Howard. “He is our backbone. It is nice as a defender when you know you have that behind you.”
It was likely the last World Cup game for Howard. He is 35 now, and will be 39 and have just completed his last English Premier League contract with Everton the next time soccer’s big show rolls around.
If this was the end, what a way to go. Howard did not disappoint, not for a moment. If a lack of natural talent and overall quality were to blame for the U.S. being unable to get into the quarterfinals, Howard is the standout exception.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann claimed a month ago that he was one of the top five goalkeepers in the world and while everyone has their own tastes and such things are subjective, it would be hard to argue against that assertion, based on this effort, or indeed the one against Portugal in the second group game.
“The way Tim played tonight was just phenomenal, just outstanding,” Klinsmann said. “He kept us in the game a long time.”
Howard briefly thought about international retirement as long as four years ago and there is a fine younger replacement, Brad Guzan, waiting in the wings and prepared for battle after two campaigns as understudy.
Whether Howard pulls on a national team jersey again, an eternal place as one of America’s soccer greats awaits.
A warrior who gained soccer smarts all through his career, he has never been better than he is now. On this night his opposite number was Thibaut Courtois, the brilliant young Belgian who won Spain’s La Liga and nearly the Champions League with Atletico Madrid last season.
But good as Courtois was and is, Howard was the one who shined here. Admittedly, he saw far more action, with Belgium nearly constantly on the offensive.
As time ticked on and the U.S. held on towards the end of regulation, Howard was always there, with a word in the ears of a backline that ranged from four World Cup veteran DaMarcus Beasley to 20-year-old rookie DeAndre Yedlin.
The fate of a goalkeeper is a difficult one, and there is only so much a single person can do. For the two strikes he conceded, to Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku in the first half of extra time, he had no chance, having been left too exposed.
No player deserves the pain of a World Cup defeat, the raw feeling of the dream dying, all those hopes torn away. Some do, unfortunately, deserve the result. Tim Howard deserved neither.