Tim Howard

As his 2014 World Cup journey came to a close, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann had plenty to think about after the Americans 2-1 defeat at the hands of Belgium on July 1.

He could begin with the positives, and there are plenty of them.

His team played with an effort that is worth being proud of. They played with more grit and confidence than ever. They weren’t just the same old Americans that weren’t really feared. No, this time they had really earned some respect.

They had taken down old nemesis Ghana and imposed their will on powerhouse Portugal. They had held Germany steady enough to not lose decisively and had been outplayed by Belgium, but through Tim Howard, still showed that their country could also be a home to one of the best soccer talents in the world.

They had played with more toughness, wisdom and poise than ever, while making sure that after this World Cup, the clichés and jokes about American soccer were all but silenced.

They had also made a nation believe. They had made a country come closer together for soccer than ever before. Maybe it was because of the social media craze that’s sweeping America or maybe it was something else, but either way, “I believe” began to feel as patriotic as the red white and blue of the flag.

Klinsmann’s group did not come close to winning the World Cup. In fact, they lost in the exact same way as in 2010, a round of 16, 2-1, extra time loss. But even in losing, the American side was able to capture the attention of their fans at home.

“Many people watched this competition, maybe more than South Africa,” Klinsmann said the day after the Belgium loss. “We are all in this together. We all try to make this game grow in our country and get it to the next level.”

Klinsmann has begun to inspire belief in his national program, but he must also be pondering what needs to happen for his team to take the next step.

A marquee striker is needed with a game that reaches further than anything Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey ever did. The U.S. needs a feared striker that the team can find its identity in – a Suárez, or Neymar or Messi type of player.

Right now, the best chances lay with 19-year-old Julian Green, whose goal minutes after making his World Cup debut against Belgium made a promising statement for the future of U.S. soccer. With four years to develop until the next World Cup, Green could be ready to lead this team and be supported by other young promising players like defenders John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin.

Defense should be the bigger focus, though. A big time goal-scorer won’t make up for the lack of defending the U.S. had throughout the entire World Cup. This is their biggest task at hand to take the next step. Strong defenders are needed desperately. In the Belgium game alone, the U.S. allowed 26 shots compared to nine given up by Belgium. If it were not for Howard’s 15 saves, they would have been completely dismantled.

Great defending won’t necessarily win you a World Cup, but it can neutralize teams like Germany and Brazil in their attacking. If reaching a World Cup victory is possible for the U.S., it will have to start with learning how not to lose.

It’s something that Klinsmann will need to figure out. He will ultimately have to align a group that defends well and creates better counterattacks than the U.S. had in this World Cup.

Klinsmann surely knows this and he has likely already began pondering what his next group of guys will look like.

Older players like Dempsey and Howard might have seen their last World Cup. The U.S. will look completely different in four years. But they also might be more ready. Their time to really make a run at it might be only a few decisions away.

American goalkeeper Tim Howard played the game of his life Tuesday but it wasn’t enough to keep the Americans in the World Cup.

After 120 minutes of play, the Belgians walked off the pitch with a 2-1 victory and a date with Argentina in the quarterfinals. Throughout the game Belgium was in dominant form, as it got 39 total shots. But Howard was phenomenal as he saved shot after shot, ending the match with the most saves in a World Cup game since 1966 with 16.

“That’s my job,” Howard said. “That’s what I signed up to do.”

Despite being under constant duress, the U.S. was able to push the game into extra time. But the Belgians were able to breakthrough in 93rd minute on a Kevin De Bruyne goal. Romelu Lukaku extended Belgium’s lead to 2-0 with a beautiful goal in the 105th minute.

But the Americans refused to go away. Julian Green pulled the U.S. to within one with a fantastic volley that Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois couldn't get enough of. Green is the youngest player to ever score for the U.S. in the World Cup.

The Americans gave it one more shot on a set piece. The U.S. was able to sneak the ball behind the Belgian defense but Courtois blocked a shot from forward Clint Dempsey. There were more opportunities as the game came to an end but the U.S. was unable to score the equalizer.

“We’re probably unlucky to get the equalizer there at the end,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “You get to this point and everybody’s a good team. Every game is gonna be a hard game and you know that it’s gonna be a play here or play there [that’s] gonna make a difference.”

Belgium moves on to play the Argentines who scored a late extra time goal against Switzerland to move on. For the Americans, this is their second consecutive loss in the Round of 16. The U.S.’s last appearance in the quarterfinals was in 2002 after it defeated Mexico. The Americans followed up that victory with a 1-0 loss to Germany.

While the loss stings for a team that “believed” it could win against anyone it faced, the Americans showed improvement under the direction of German born coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann plans to be back for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and looks to continue pushing the U.S. name into the ranks of world’s best teams.

“We take a lot, a tremendous amount away from this experience,” Klinsmann said. “I think we grew a lot. We know now that we can play eye-to-eye with the big nations.”

United States' goalkeeper Tim Howard waves to supporters after qualifying for the next World Cup round following their 1-0 loss to Germany during the group G World Cup soccer match between the USA and Germany at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, Thursday, June 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

To understand who USA goalkeeper Tim Howard really is, you have to start with the part that lies closest to him – his tattoos.

Covering the entire frame of his front torso and half of both arms, the ink that Howard has carefully chosen, design by design, tells the innermost details of his life.

There are the crucifixes and bible verses, which parallel the faith Howard often says drives his every action. And there’s the Superman logo, engraved in the middle of his right arm, reminding him to always be strong. There are also the portraits of his two children, Jacob and Alivia, placed in the most important of spots – above his heart. Between the stars and Chinese symbols that symbolize important factors in his life, like health and happiness, hundreds of tattoos have become a part of who Howard is.

But perhaps none are more significant to Howard’s story, to how he got to the place he now finds himself in – the leader of the U.S. national team – than the name written on the middle of his chest. “Fekete,” his mother.  

Howard wasn’t raised like most children of his generation. The son of an African American father and Hungarian mother, his parents divorced when he was just three years old, robbing him of a normal childhood.

Esther, which is his mother’s first name, became the family’s backbone. While his father remained in Howard’s life, it was Esther who raised he and his brother Chris in a one-bedroom apartment. It was Esther who worked two jobs to put food on the table. And it was she who drove Howard to soccer practices and tournaments almost every day of the week.

“It was a one-bedroom apartment she made into a three-bedroom apartment,” Howard said in an interview with USA Today. “I don’t know how she did it.”

He may never figure that out, but he will forever understand how he did it. How he overcame a Tourette syndrome diagnosis in the sixth grade. How he established himself as a talented goalkeeper in high school and eventually was given a shot to make the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now Red Bulls) roster. How he was offered a job as the starting goalkeeper for Manchester United in 2003, and after three years there, began at Everton, where he became a star. And finally, how, after eight years with the U.S. national team, he made his first start in a World Cup in 2010 and then again this year in Brazil.

It was Esther. That’s where it all began and that’s why Howard has risen to this point.

"A lot of people saw the amount of time that I spent with my children and the activities and saw that as a sacrifice. I never did,” Esther told ESPN in 2010. “I felt that was what needed to be done. You need to do certain things to raise them well and that's what you do … the best part is seeing my son achieve his dream.”

This World Cup, just like with many matches Howard has played, Esther can be found in the stands, hoping nervously that her son will play great and that the U.S. will win.

Sitting there, she’s been able to witness, along with the rest of the world, the special run that this American group has made. Everything from their spectacular goals to their survival of the “Group of Death.”

More importantly, she’s witnessed how important her son has been to putting this team in the next stage of this World Cup.

Against their first group play opponent, Ghana, Howard only allowed one goal on 21 shots fired his way, eight on target. He followed that with three-saves against Portugal, the No. 4 ranked FIFA team, which earned him “Man of the Match.” Then came Germany on Thursday, where Howard saved the Americans eight times in comparison to Germany’s keeper Manuel Neuer, who only had one save.

But the statistics don’t tell the full story.

Howard has not simply just put up good numbers, he has been the biggest reason for the U.S. surviving. Take the Portugal and Germany games, for instance. In both matches, the U.S. defense looked out of sink, especially on Thursday. Their misplay kept putting Howard in unfavorable positions. He responded, though, time and time again. When the camera panned to Howard, you could see him motioning his hands, yelling, navigating his defense on where they should be.

It comes natural to him. At 35 and three months, Howard is the oldest member on the 23-man U.S. roster. His mannerisms on the pitch, just like his tattoos, are carefully thought out. He’s learned from the best leader he knows. And he’s made sure to never forget those lessons she showed him growing up. The ones that still propel him today.

The U.S. has never looked so fearless in their play. And Howard doesn’t have Landon Donovan to fight for player’s attentions anymore. They know where to look to for guidance. Without as many marquee names, Howard has become the underrated center peace of this American side.

After the Germany match, one the U.S. lost 1-0 but still advanced to the final 16 of the World Cup, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was asked what Howard means to his team.

“He’s our leader,” Klinsmann said. “He keeps everybody together, and we need him right now. In a World Cup, if you want to go far, you need one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and we have that.”

It is Howard’s time, no matter the outcome, to fearlessly calm the storms the U.S. will surely face in the final 16. The team has already done more than most expected of them, and beginning on Tuesday against Belgium, they’ll look to continue to prove the doubters wrong.

The core of their fighting spirit will remain with Howard, just as the core of Howard remains with Esther. Tattooed in the center of his body, right in the middle, always reminding him who he is, where he came from and just how much farther he can go.  

 

2014 FIFA World Cup Round of 16 Schedule:

Brazil VS Chile – Saturday, 6/28 at 11 a.m. CT

Colombia VS Uruguay – Saturday, 6/28 at 3 p.m. CT

The Netherlands VS Mexico – Sunday, 6/29 at 11 a.m. CT

Costa Rica VS Greece – Sunday, 6/29 at 3 p.m. CT

France VS Nigeria – Monday, 6/30 at 11 a.m. CT

Germany VS Algeria – Monday, 6/30 at 3 p.m. CT

Argentina VS Switzerland – Tuesday, 7/1 at 11 a.m. CT

USA VS Belgium – Tuesday, 7/1 at 3 p.m. CT

America loses friendly to Spain

Commonly referred to as “La Furia Roja” (The Red Fury), the Spanish national football team lived up to their nickname quite well in Saturday’s international friendly against the U.S. The defending World Cup champions showed their collective strength, as they cruised to a 4-0 victory over a short-handed U.S. side.

From the start of the match, it was obvious the U.S. would have a tough time keeping up with the speed and ingenuity of Spain. Within the first ten minutes, Spain had already laid an assault on the goal, and U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard was visibly frustrated with his team’s lack of defense.

It wasn’t long before his frustration turned to outright anger. Howard could be seen yelling at his teammates for letting Spain get shots on goal with relative ease. As is normal for a Spanish soccer squad, it controlled the midfield with short, precise passes that allowed for larger areas to open up for them. Spain capitalized on nearly every goal-scoring opportunity that presented itself, and at the conclusion of the first half it held a 3-0 advantage over the U.S.

Without some background on the circumstances that were in play Saturday, the final score could come as a shock to some.

Spain has been a very good team for some time now, but it is not invincible. In fact, it was this U.S team that ended Spain’s 35-game unbeaten streak with a 2-0 victory in the 2009 Confederations Cup. However, due to the CONCACAF Gold Cup, many key players from that U.S. side like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, and Carlos Bocanegra were on the bench for the start of Saturday’s match. Dempsey and Bradley came on in the second half of the match, and were able to shore up the defense and only allow one additional goal.

The Gold Cup begins Sunday. It is a tournament composed of 16 teams from North and South America, as well as the Caribbean, that determines the champion of the region. Canada, Panama, and Guadeloupe are paired with the U.S. for the group stage. The U.S. will take on a solid Canadian squad Tuesday, and with the extra rest for some of the best U.S. players, it should be an easy victory for the U.S.