When news broke in March that Tim Howard’s move from Everton to Colorado had been consummated, there was little question his addition to the roster would be a significant upgrade for the Rapids.
In the past two seasons, Colorado had finished in front of just one team -- San Jose in 2014 -- and after three weeks of the 2016 season a 1-1-1 record placed it squarely in the middle of the pack. Newly acquired midfielder Jermaine Jones had three more games of his suspension to sit out.
Nearly two months later, Colorado sits atop the conference at 7-2-3 and is a perfect 6-0-0 at home. Jones has shown little rust from his long layoff and the Rapids are the stingiest team in MLS, conceding just 0.75 goals per game.
Though Howard can’t be registered to play in MLS until the domestic transfer window re-opens in early July, he has joined the U.S. training camp for a swing of three friendlies leading up to the Copa America Centenario, which kicks off June 3 against Colombia. Assuming he gets a fair share of playing time for the U.S. he should be relatively sharp when he joins the Rapids, who traded starting keeper Clint Irwin to Toronto during the offseason and handed the gloves to former Union prodigy Zac MacMath, who is tied for the league lead in shutouts with four.
Howard lost the No. 1 job at Everton earlier this year to Joel Robles. That demotion of Howard by former manager Roberto Martinez, who himself departed last week prior to the final game of the season against Norwich at which Howard was honored, accelerated discussions of a move back to MLS.
Howard told ESPN FC that he spoke to Everton chairman Bill Kenwright about a change of clubs as long ago as October.
“There's a lot of stuff people don't know,” Howard said. “The conversations with Colorado happened way back in October and November. The chairman and the board literally did everything in their power to grant my wish. That doesn't happen very often.”
At the time, both Howard and Everton were laboring. Errors had plagued his game and the club, which had finished fifth in 2013-14 but had slipped to 11th in the 2014-15 final standings. For most of the 2015-16 campaign, Everton again struggled and despite beating Norwich City, 3-0, with Howard in goal for the season finale again finished 11th.
Howard told Sky Sports, “I've had a fantastic career in England and in particular at Everton, but as football clubs move forward and players have careers to think about you always have to make decisions.
“This one crept up on me -- I had two more years at Everton which I planned on seeing out, but when I spoke to my family, Roberto Martinez and the chairman I thought the decision and the timing ... just seemed to be the right move.”
Everton players formed a guard of honor to welcome Howard onto the field at Goodison Park Saturday for his final game. Fans chanted “USA, USA, USA” as Howard waved to all sections of a stadium that has been his home for the past decade. He leaves Everton with 414 appearances in all competitions, which places him 13th on the club’s all-time list.
“You guys have given me the privilege and honor to play for this great club since 2006,” said Howard, who joined Everton that year in a transfer after playing three years for Manchester United. “I’m leaving tomorrow but this will always be my home.”
Assuming he plays well and enjoys his new home in Colorado, a Howard resurgence alters considerably the pecking order amongst U.S. goalkeepers as head coach Jurgen Klinsmann plots a way forward. The relegation of Aston Villa clouds the picture for Brad Guzan, who temporarily took over as the U.S. No. 1 when Howard took a sabbatical from the national team after the 2014 World Cup. Guzan also lost his Villa starting spot towards the end of the season and absorbed a lot of blame for its dismal campaign.
“We'll have good talks over the next couple of days with Brad and Tim, and then I'll let you know more,” said the U.S. coach during a Facebook chat on Tuesday. At 31, Guzan is six years younger than Howard and thus has a longer future. But Howard, the all-time caps header among U.S. keepers with 107, is not in camp to sit on the bench and Guzan has yet to convince all concerned he’s unquestionably the better choice.
Guzan started all of the Gold Cup games last year and kept his status as No. 1 following Howard’s return, including the Concacaf Cup loss to Mexico that vaporized the Americans’ last chance to reach the 2019 Confederations Cup. The keepers split the two World Cup qualifiers played in November as well as the pair in March.
So are we back to the days of two keepers being platooned, as was the case when Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller dominated the lineups and occasionally sniped about the arrangement? Prior to the Centenario, there are three warmup matches to be played, starting Sunday against Puerto Rico, the squad for which includes both keepers as well as promising youngster Zach Steffen (21) of Freiburg, who is in his first camp with the senior team but is not included on the 40-man preliminary Centenario roster.
The younger contingent of American keepers isn’t as deep because D.C. stalwart Bill Hamid, the 2014 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, is recovering from surgery performed to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. Joining Howard and Guzan on the 40-man squad are Mr. Reliable, Nick Rimando of Real Salt Lake, Ethan Horvath of Norwegian club Molde, and San Jose goalie David Bingham, who earned his first cap in a 1-0 defeat of Canada three months ago.
Howard first established himself by starting all three U.S. games at the 2003 Confederations Cup, though Keller took over and started all Gold Cup matches that summer. Many times in his career Howard has been the major reason the U.S. grabbed a victory or tie in competitive matches.
An amazing game against Belgium at the 2014 World Cup rekindled memories of an excellent Howard performance five years earlier against Spain at the Confederations Cup. With a sputtering attack that will be missing Jozy Altidore at least through the Centenario, the Americans may again lean on their defensive resilience for success.
Unlike many signature games provided by Howard, rarely in his career has Guzan played the kind of game that prompts declarations that he was the difference, the major reason the Americans got a victory or tie. At this point, Klinsmann hasn’t indicated that sooner rather than later he’ll deem one man as No. 1 and stick with him.
Many of Klinsmann’s decisions on tactics and personnel at the Centenario will hinge on what he wants to do during the Hexagonal, as well as the 2018 World Cup in Russia if the USA qualifies. At many positions, he doesn’t seem to have ideal options. In many slots he must compare several good players.
There’s not a bad choice in goal between Guzan and Howard. But as long as both are in the pool there will be comparisons and criticisms, and probably few opportunities for a younger player to get a real shot at the No. 1 jersey.
No matter how much we appreciate Howard's awesome past, it's time to step aside like Friedel did to clear the way for the next generation, Guzan (who actually needs a good run of form now that Villa got relegated).
If he was still clearly the best, I might disagree R2. But he isn't. The most experienced, absolutely. This is JK's crux, so to speak. Personally, I'm not so sure Horvath isn't our best right now. Guzan, for some reason has always looked a tad unsettled-nervous. I'm really looking for JK to gamble more and see what we can do to develop a roster for the hexagonal. I'm much more concerned with our ability to possess. Winning Copa matches is second.