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Tim Howard Lands on His Feet
by Ridge Mahoney, June 6th, 2007 6:52PM

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TAGS:  england, gold cup, international, men's national team

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Three years after losing the starting job at Manchester United, U.S. keeper Tim Howard is back in the nets for Premier League rival Everton.

There isn't much down time for Tim Howard these days. The demanding pressures of club and country commitments fill up his datebook, so the narrow window between the end of the Premier League season and the commencement of U.S. training camp in late May is to be savored.

"I'm gonna rest, I'm gonna rest as much as I can," he says of a trip to Memphis, where he and wife Laura and son Jacob reside in the offseason. "I definitely appreciate my rest time more."

The rest time might not be so restful, since late May is when Laura is expected to give birth to a baby daughter. The national team was to gather May 27 and play a tuneup game in San Jose against China five days later and kick off the Gold Cup June 7.

He expects to play in the Gold Cup, but U.S. coach Bob Bradley says his participation in the Copa America is "extremely unlikely," which isn't surprising, since the start of Everton's preseason training in July falls right in the middle of the Copa, and there will be the additional pressure of UEFA Cup play to prepare for.

"It's all happening now," he says, laughing. "It's going good. Best thing ever. I have no complaints."

Howard got to Everton last year by complaining, politely but firmly, about his status with Manchester United. It had eroded steadily since a rare error marred an otherwise superb initial season (2003-04) in the Premier League. As a result, he played fewer games in the two ensuing seasons than he had in his debut campaign, which clouded his stature as the heir apparent to Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel as the next star in the American goalkeeping tradition.

"I don't think I ever accepted it, I don't think I'll ever accept it, you know what I mean," says Howard of being the backup, or worse, at United. "I knew it was a chapter and I knew it would end. I was hoping it would end sooner rather than later, which it did, if maybe not soon enough."

FROM MANCHESTER TO MERSEYSIDE.The past season is the heaviest load of EPL games Howard played since his move to Manchester United four years ago. In that first season, he played 32 EPL games, four in domestic cups, and eight more in the Champions League for a total of 44. A bobble in the round of 16 against Porto ushered United out of the competition, and the following season Howard played 27 games while sharing time with Roy Carroll.

"I could have stayed at United for another 10 years being either the No. 1 or No. 2, depending on the given season," Howard says. "But I think they wanted to bring a guy as the No. 2 who wasn't going to rock the boat, and I just don't think that's my gig."

Shortly after Howard signed a contract extension, United bought Dutch international keeper Edwin Van der Sar from Fulham. Van der Sar started every EPL match and all eight Champions League games in the 2005-06 season. Howard made just six appearances: one Premier League game as a sub, and five in the FA Cup and League Cup.

"People always ask about the second season, and the second season wasn't nearly as good as the first, but it certainly wasn't as bad as the third, you know?" he says. "You have to keep it in perspective. When you're not playing, you're not doing what you love to do, it gets boring, in truth. It gets a little bit redundant, really."

Howard's position at United eroded further a month after the 2006 World Cup when the team took Polish international keeper Tony Kuszczak on loan from West Bromwich Albion. Kuszcak is only three years younger than Howard, who was 27 and wasn't relishing the possibility of playing reserve games as the No. 3 keeper or watching Van der Sar for another season as No. 2.

"I went to the manager directly," says Howard of squaring his situation with Sir Alex Ferguson. "I found out early in my United career, you start to use different avenues of getting to the manager, and it becomes like a game of telephone. Things get a little cocked up and your message doesn't get sent and his message doesn't get sent, because people put their own spin on it, depending on who's the assistant coach or whoever.

"The best way is to be open and honest and keep everything above board. At the end of the day, you can always speak to an individual, man to man, without there being any hassle."

Howard appreciates the forthrightness of Everton manager David Moyes, who played 629 league and cup matches as a defender in the English and Scottish leagues. He ended his career at Preston North End and took over as manager in 1998 at age 35. One of Moyes' moves there was to take on U.S. striker Brian McBride, then with the Crew, on loan. He passed up a chance to work as Ferguson's assistant, instead moving to Everton in 2002, and again took McBride on loan before the striker went to Fulham on a transfer.

Like most EPL middle-tier clubs, Everton can't shell out obscene money for players as can the big four -- Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea -- so Moyes is always looking for players -- including Americans -- he can afford. Getting Howard from United cost 3 million pounds ($5.8 million), the largest transfer fee ever paid for an American player. (Sunderland paid $5.6 million for Claudio Reyna in July 2001.)

"He's very ambitious and he tells it like it is, which is something I really appreciate," says Howard, hinting that Ferguson wasn't always so straightforward. "When you walk into the dressing room, he's going to tell you, 'You played well today,' or 'I don't think you gave us enough today.' It's as blunt as that. He holds everyone accountable, and it leaves nobody guessing.

"He's very hands-on. European managers sometime observe from their office, and he's not like that. He's on the field, giving feedback, coaching points. He's definitely in the mix, always."

FACING THE BIG FOUR. Everton is the only team aside from the powerful quartet to finish in the top four since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea for $223 million in the summer of 2003. Since then, Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer has paid an astonishing $1.5 billion to take over Manchester United, rival NHL owners Tom Hicks (Dallas) and George Gillett (Montreal) formed a partnership to pay $921.1 million to buy Liverpool and build a new stadium to replace Anfield, and Colorado Rapids operator-investor Stan Kroenke has bought a 12 percent stake in Arsenal that may be the prelude to a takeover bid.

Howard played in 36 Premier League matches for Everton, missing just two games, including a controversial match against Manchester United in April that raised questions as to whether he'd been restricted from playing against United as a condition of the transfer. Such conditions are often part of loan deals, but are prohibited in regular player contracts.

If he had his way, Howard would have played, and not out of revenge. Backup keeper Iain Fraser committed a blunder that helped United rally from a 2-0 deficit to win, 4-2. A few days after getting his first start of the season against United, Fraser signed a contract extension, and Howard returned as the starter to finish the season.

"People talk about hard feelings, I have no hard feelings toward Manchester United," he says. "It is what it is and one thing we don't understand as Americans, is that soccer is a business. It's cutthroat. They made a business decision and on that matter, so did Everton."

His club is one of perhaps a half-dozen that can aspire to break into the top four, but must focus on reaching the UEFA Cup places and/or doing well in the domestic cups. Everton finished sixth to qualify for UEFA but otherwise faltered, being knocked out by Arsenal early in the League Cup and suffering a 4-1 beating -- at home! -- from Blackburn in its only FA Cup match.

"For whatever reason, it didn't come off for us," says Howard. "On the whole, in the FA Cup, I don't think the team played well, I played terribly. When you have a handful of guys, out of 11, not playing well, it's going to lead to disaster. But that happens.

"Just getting into European competition is a great achievement. I played in the Champions League and it's phenomenal, and I think our fans are looking forward to playing in Europe. They've really pushed us on and especially against Portsmouth, they were unbelievable."

Living in the shadow of the most successful English club -- Liverpool has won 18 English titles and five European Cups -- is a fact of daily life for Everton. Two years ago, Everton nosed out Liverpool for fourth place in the Premier League, yet the feat was somehow overshadowed by amazing events in Istanbul, where Liverpool rallied from a three-goal deficit to tie AC Milan, 3-3, and then win the Champions League final on penalty kicks.

By the time those two teams reprise that meeting in this year's final, Howard may be a father for a second time. That's also about the time the U.S. team is due to convene in Southern California to commence preparations for the Gold Cup and Copa America. Howard left England for his home in Memphis immediately after Everton tied Chelsea, 1-1, in the finale to a season Howard says he enjoyed on and off the field.

"There's much more socializing and hanging out with the guys at Everton than I did at Manchester United," he says. "That doesn't mean one thing or the other, it's just a family-oriented club. The guys have been fantastic and I've said all along it's the best group of guys I've ever played with, bar none."

He's played twice for the USA, against Mexico and Ecuador, since Bob Bradley took over as head coach from Bruce Arena. The adjustment from club to country is eased, he believes, despite the differences in styles and competition, because the respective coaches aren't much different.

"They tell you on a day-to-day basis what they think of how you're performing," Howard says. "That's really good, and it keeps you on your toes. As a goalkeeper, now that I'm 28, I am who I am. I'm sure there's things I'll get better at, I'm sure there's things I won't, you know what I mean? I'm not by any means complacent, but I just think I'll keep trying to get better and better.

"The personal and team goals will come sometime during the season. As for my national team goals, they won't ever change."

(This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)

 

 

 



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