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United he stands

Tim Howard accelerates the BMW 530i as we take a lazy curve out of the players' parking lot outside Old Trafford, the home stadium of Manchester United. A relentless mist is falling outside -- some sort of precipitation always seems to be threatening in Manchester -- and the highway gleams with the reflection of headlights.

Ten minutes later, we pull up outside a restaurant in Manchester's City Centre district, and two large doormen dressed exclusively in black ask me to remove my Eric Cantona scarf. They're hoping to avoid any trouble from fans of teams other than Manchester United. It's late -- almost 11 p.m. -- after another United win, and the Man U haters, as they say here in England, are pissed. I want to point out that while I can easily remove my scarf, Tim can't remove his face, and nearly every person in England knows what last season's Premiership Goalkeeper of the Year looks like.

The owner of the joint greets us warmly and shows us to a table upstairs, out of the way. Tim gets the bar's last Budweiser -- which surely tastes like home -- and he asks if I've caught up on my sleep, if I've had time to explore the city yet, how the Knicks are looking. I have trouble answering, as my head is spinning. One hour ago I was in United's family room, after United thrashed AC Sparta Praha, 4-1. While I waited for Tim to shower and change, I was literally side by side with some of soccer's biggest stars -- Rio Ferdinand, Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy, who'd banged in all four goals.

Despite being a soccer fan, for years I found it hard to devote my allegiance to any team in Europe. With American sports, it was all given. I grew up in Atlanta so I rooted for the Braves, Hawks and Falcons. This is born-in fanship. But I refused to devote myself to a random team across the Atlantic. So I looked to find a reason to believe.

Tim Howard was born and raised in New Jersey, and began his soccer career as an MLS goalkeeper for the New York-based Metrostars. I moved to New York in 2000, and got to know Tim soon after, through a mutual friend. We stayed in touch after I interviewed him for the Dime Drop section of SLAM.

His life changed radically in the summer of 2003, when he was signed by Manchester United, perhaps the most famous sports franchise in the world. He arrived in Manchester and immediately won the starting job, unseating the legendary (but fading) Fabien Barthez. Tim had a few tough games late in his rookie year, but he helped United win the FA Cup and was voted the Goalkeeper of the Year by the other Premier League players.

Meanwhile, I finally had a link to a team. Manchester United quickly became my team.

Since he moved to England, Tim and I talked occasionally, but I never had time to attend a match, though I always swore I would. So last Wednesday, there I was, sitting about 12 rows up in the corner at Old Trafford, in the midst of 66,000 United united, listening to the songs and chants wash over me from the East Stands.

Also in the stands was Tim Howard, parked on United's bench. After making mistakes in back-to-back games earlier this season, Tim was demoted. His replacement, Roy Carroll, has been solid ever since, leaving Tim to sit and watch. And wait.

He's been pretty quiet in the British media since being benched, so I've been scouring the Internet for any tidbits. Tim and I touched on his situation at dinner, but we talked more about it a few days later at his house in Wilmslow, about half an hour outside Manchester. And I discovered that any rumors of Tim Howard's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

"It's never as bad as the papers say, and it's never as good as the papers say," Tim says, leaning back on a couch in his game room, one foot propped up against the pool table. "I'm a big believer in looking yourself in the mirror, and I'm always going to own up to my mistakes. Did I lose us games? No, no. Did I contribute to it? Yes. But it takes 11 of us to win and 11 of us to lose. Having said that, a goalkeeper is a very convenient scapegoat. Absolutely, positively. I understand that."

Some reports I'd read suggested that the Tourette's Syndrome that afflicts Howard -- which to my eyes mostly causes him to involuntarily cough from time to time -- had flared up.

"That's ridiculous," Tim says. "But I know that if the papers write, 'Tim Howard's having a rest after years of playing,' that's not going to sell any papers. I understand 'sophomore jinx,' 'one-year wonder,' all those things that get written. I also know those make for good stories in the papers."

At the end of the day, Howard seems to refuse to let even the doom-and-gloom of Manchester -- the city that birthed Morrissey and The Smiths' legendary melancholy -- bring him down. He and his wife, Laura, keep their big screen TV glued to something called the North American Sports Network, catching the occasional NFL or college game. They're active in their local church. They dote on their dog, Clayton, a thick, rust-colored Vizsla who constantly drags blankets all over the house.

As evening falls, Tim pulls on an orange sweater and prepares to go to church for a bonfire to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night.

"For me it's really been about level-headedness," he says. He picks some lint off his brown slacks. "I'm too blessed. I don't let my family or friends say, 'Hey, you know, it's going to be OK.' I know it's going to be OK. I know it is. And I'm OK. I have a good perspective on things now. Sitting on the bench, and being one play away from being a starter again, there's a lot worse things going on in this world right now."

Lang Whitaker is the online editor at SLAM magazine and writes daily at SLAMonline.com. He's still trying to sort out all those songs he heard at Old Trafford.

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