It's still early, of course -- we're just 10 games into a 38-game English Premier League season -- but notoriously slow-starting Everton has leaped out of the blocks for a change and finds itself in fourth place, trailing only big-spending Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City. These are promising days at Goodison Park, so I asked Everton's U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard if it's realistic to think the Toffees could finish in the top four for the first time since 2004-05 and bag an entry into the Champions League.
"I think the realistic thing is we can do it," Howard told me on Sunday, the day after Everton tied 2-2 at Fulham despite having dominated the game on the road. "The way you get Champions League football is by playing really well over the course of 38 games. Some teams can play well and they're just not as talented, and they're not going to make the top four. So far we've shown we have the talent and can punch above our weight. Now it's just a matter of sustaining this. When Christmas time comes and the games come back-to-back-to-back, as tough as it is, it's also a great opportunity to pick up a lot of points."
Everton has been particularly good in possession this season, and forward Marouane Fellaini may be making The Leap at age 24. The big-haired Belgian scored twice on Saturday, bringing his season total to five, and his second strike against Fulham was a breathtaking combination of skill and brawn -- "power personified," as Howard put it.
"We always knew he was better the farther up the field you go, but for different reasons we weren't always able to play him there," Howard said of Fellaini. "We had to play him back as maybe a holding midfielder or central midfielder. But now we have players who can play those positions, which has allowed him to move forward. He's so hard to deal with. When he first got here, he was getting loads of fouls called against him. He still probably gets too many called unfairly, but he's just that strong. He's the total package."
As for Howard, he's now 33 and playing in his 10th Premier League season. The player who made a storybook move from MLS to Manchester United in 2003 has forged the third great career of a U.S. goalkeeper in England after Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller. With the recent end of Friedel's all-time Premier League record of 310 straight starts, Howard now holds the top current mark of 192 consecutive league starts.
A decade into his Premier League adventure, Howard now sees himself as a finished product. At 23, he said, "I needed to learn a lot of things and get better in every way. I think I've done that. I've gotten to the point where I've virtually mastered the position. Now that has different levels, depending on your talent. But I've become the goalkeeper I wanted to become. Hopefully I'll continue getting better, but it's going to be in small increments. The hard part is to maintain my physical attributes, keep fit and stay mentally sharp so I can be at my best."
With age and experience comes efficiency. It's true in any job, and the goalkeeper position is no different. Athleticism is one thing, and Howard still has much of the startling shot-stopping ability that he did in his 20s. But he said the big change over time has been in how he sees things develop in front of him on the field.
"I've come to appreciate how much the game slows down," he said. "When I was a kid I heard Michael Jordan talk about it, like when he hit all those three-pointers against the Trail Blazers in the playoffs. It just slowed down. Everything was going in slow motion. When you're a young goalkeeper, it's frantic and you play at a frantic pace. When I was growing up I heard Kasey and Brad talk about goalkeepers getting better as they get older. You're waiting for that to happen, and suddenly one day the game just slows down, and you see it more clearly and you're more calm in the moment. I'm just glad I got to that point, really."
By now, Howard has seen a lot of things in the Premier League. He has three more guaranteed years after this one on his Everton contract, which ends in the spring of 2016, when he'll be 37. He's not sure what comes after that: Staying in England, moving back to MLS or retiring are likely options. And while Howard doesn't want to coach after he's done playing, he does know that he wants to be involved in soccer in some capacity.
Whatever ends up happening, it will be good to have Howard's voice in the sport. Toward the end of our conversation, I asked him about the spate of incidents involving alleged racism in the Premier League. We got to talking about how it's hard for U.S. sports fans to understand why such things still happen over there. Howard, who's bi-racial, said he had never been the target of any racist abuse in England, but he was clear in what he thinks should happen.
"I think the governing bodies need to do a better job of stamping it out cold turkey -- not slaps on the wrist, but really heavy sanctions," he said. "It's no different than hooliganism. Twenty years ago, people asked, 'How the heck do we stop these crazy madmen? It's out of control.' But [the governing bodies] said, 'That's it, you're banned for life, get out of here.' And now we don't have those incidents anymore. Racism is the same. It needs to be stamped out, but authoritatively. Not just, 'We'll get around to having a hearing at some point.' It's ugly and it's not right, but it's there. Quite frankly, it's the elephant in the room that everyone's afraid to talk about, but you wonder why. If someone makes a racist gesture or says a racist word, then you deal with it."
• AZ Alkmaar's U.S. forward Jozy Altidore scored twice in the Dutch Cup last week, bringing his season total to 11 goals in all competitions. While Altidore is on pace to set a record for goals in a season by an American in a European league, he may or may not get the call from U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann for the upcoming friendly against Russia. Altidore wasn't called in for last month's World Cup qualifiers, and Klinsmann said last week that he wasn't sure if he would pick Altidore this time, either.
"I'm not losing any sleep over it," Altidore told me over the weekend. "I obviously love playing for my country, which is a dream of mine. But I'm focusing on just getting better and trying to score goals. I can't worry about things that are out of my control." When asked, Altidore said he hadn't spoken to Klinsmann since the U.S. game in Jamaica in September.
Altidore is playing with confidence for AZ these days, and while he's aware that there's an element of goal inflation in Holland, he also feels good about a league that has been the launch pad for several great careers. "You look at the top players who've come through when they were younger, and they dwell on being here," Altidore said. "I won't compare myself talent-wise, but look at Ronaldo, Romário, (Zlatan) Ibrahimovic, (Klaas-Jan) Huntelaar. It's been a platform for guys to come through and get the confidence they need. Look at Michael Bradley. It says a lot about the league."
• A source in Mexico tells me Chivas de Guadalajara has indeed shown informal interest in acquiring U.S. forward Hérculez Gómez from Santos Laguna after the current season. Chivas assistant coach Eduardo Fentanes Orozco worked with Gómez during his successful stays at Puebla and Tecos. If he were to join Chivas, Gómez would be the first international for another country to play for the team, but he does not violate Chivas' stated all-Mexican player philosophy, since it includes players whose parents are Mexican (as Gómez's are).
• Kansas City midfielder Roger Espinoza looks headed to Wigan in the Premier League in January. The Honduran international's agent, Mike Gartlan, told me Wigan is the front-runner to acquire Espinoza on a free transfer when his MLS contract ends in December. Espinoza made a huge impression in England during the Olympics, playing an epic game in a 3-2 quarterfinal loss to Brazil and earning a standing ovation from the fans in Newcastle at the end. Gartlan told me Kansas City increased its contract offer after the Olympics, but it still wasn't good enough. The clock is ticking if Kansas City wants to keep an important cog in its midfield.
• The first legs of MLS' two-leg playoffs have typically been taut affairs without much scoring, and this year was no different, with a total of five goals scored in four games over the weekend. Two of them were own-goals, no less, on a weekend that gave us extreme goalkeeping highs (Nick Rimando, Michael Gspurning, Luis Robles) and lows (Bill Hamid, Josh Saunders). I'm fully expecting the return legs to be as compelling as they usually are on Wednesday and Thursday.
• The team of the week in MLS had to be the Houston Dynamo, which took down Chicago on the road in the East knockout game and scored two terrific goals to build a 2-0 advantage over East top seed Kansas City. Houston coach Dominic Kinnear keeps getting it done in the playoffs, but you also have to give credit to Houston's players, who just seem to take things to a new level of focus in the postseason. The Dynamo have become KC's bogeyman team, eliminating Sporting on the road in last year's conference final and aiming to knock them out again Wednesday.
• Back when I wrote my book on David Beckham's first two years in Los Angeles, one figure I never could nail down was Beckham's buy-in number to become an MLS owner, which was part of his original contract. This weekend I finally got that number for the first time: $25 million. Considering the current market-rate expansion fee is $40 million (paid by Montreal), Beckham's stated desire to exercise his option someday makes sense. Just don't expect it to come connected to the second team MLS wants to see in New York. Beckham's contract also prevented him from using that option on a New York-area team, and I'm told he has not been part of any of the investment groups that have expressed interest in owning NY2.