Back home in New Jersey, fat men didn't bellow songs in his honor.
Back home women didn't stare while he shopped, kids didn't knock
on his door for his signature, people didn't, as he says,
consider their lives complete if they just got a whiff of his
cologne. One day last summer Tim Howard was a 24-year-old from
North Brunswick who happened to play soccer for a living,
supremely gifted and almost wholly obscure. He could walk through
his local mall 100 times wearing a jersey with his name stitched
in Day-Glo, and no one would know him. Once a boy asked him for
an autograph in the lobby of a theater, and Howard stopped to
oblige. The rest of the movie-goers brushed past him to get to
Then last July, Howard walked onto a plane, sat for six hours and
walked off it a different man. It wasn't that he had changed so
much as that the world around him had: Howard had landed in
England, which, without much protest, could tomorrow rename
itself FootballLand--a far more accurate title, really, for a
country in which coaches get knighted, a smash TV drama is
devoted to players' wives and each game is dissected like the
evacuation of Dunkirk. "It's just enveloping," says Eddie Lewis,
a U.S. midfielder who has played the last four years in England.
"There's no way to escape the football. It's probably too much."
But unlike the other five Yanks playing in the English Premier
League, Howard didn't join just any EPL side. Having made only
nine national-team appearances, the U.S.'s third-string
goalkeeper suddenly found himself manning the posts for
Manchester United, the most famous club on the globe, an
institution despised and worshiped beyond all reason and "built,"
according to manager Sir Alex Ferguson, "on bigger foundations
and history than any club in the country." It's as if a boy grew
up outside Paris playing baseball--a boy poor and coping with
Tourette's syndrome besides--and ended up at catcher for the New
Usually, men aren't the subjects of fairy tales, but that's what
this is now: A male fairy tale, deep into Act III. Howard has
stepped from a black-and-white life with the New York/New Jersey
MetroStars of MLS to the Oz-like technicolor of the Premiership.
These days, he's serenaded by Mary Poppins music--Tim-timminy,
Tim-timminy, Tim-Tim Terr-ee!--whenever he makes a save. Man U
may have been in an unthinkable third place behind Arsenal and
Chelsea at week's end, but Howard has been a seasonlong
revelation, Ferguson's "star of the show," the steadiest hand in
a patchwork Red Devils' defense. "To come straight into the
Premiership and to a club like Man United? Nobody could expect
what he's done," said United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy after
Howard made four spectacular saves in a 4-2 win over Manchester
City last month. "I think he's up there with the best in the
March 22, 2004
But the sweetest part is that, for the moment anyway, this tale
still sparkles with wonder. Because as well as he's done, as
confident as he is, Howard knows what has happened "doesn't
really make sense." To walk into hallowed, immaculate,
68,174-seat Old Trafford as a member of Man U is to be at the
sport's pinnacle; the players are rock-star famous in England as
well as heroes in their homelands. Before Howard, the Red Devils
had never bothered to go after an American pro. When the United
goalkeeper coach phoned last May merely to say that the club was
interested in him, Howard says, "I could've lived on just that
for the rest of my life."
The most obvious choice was Blackburn's Brad Friedel, the top
keeper in the Premiership last season and a U.S. World Cup star
waiting for such a call. "If you polled as many people as you
could and asked, 'Man U needs a goalkeeper; who do you think?', I
wouldn't be on the list," Howard says. Sitting in a Manchester
bistro, he pauses and laughs, and his voice becomes almost a
whisper: "I wouldn't have picked me."
Goalkeepers are a different breed: So goes one of soccer's
truisms. Like relief pitchers and linebackers, they are drawn to,
then shaped by, the extreme pressures of the position, and often
respond with tricked-out hairstyles, dazzling jerseys and
nicknames like El Loco. The job is reactive by definition,
highlighted only in moments of ultimate significance. Strikers
can move back to midfield or defense as they age, but there's no
place for keepers on the fade; they're in goal or gone. It's no
wonder that, even after saves, they are often in a bug-eyed rage.
"You see a lot of kooks, a lot of crazies, trying to draw
attention to themselves," Howard says.
Not Howard. He is the exception, reserved to the point of
invisibility. With his jersey an inoffensive gray and his hair
cut short (but not to the point of look-at-me baldness), Howard
flashes no jewelry and no temper, is flamboyant only in his
aggression when a cross rockets into the box. Since making the
match-winning save against Arsenal's Robert Pires in his first
big test last August, Howard had given up just 37 goals in 37
EPL, FA Cup and Champions League matches through Sunday and had
14 shutouts--strong numbers considering the raft of suspensions
and injuries to United's defenders. But mostly, Howard has been
notable for consistency, the dullest of words until you realize
it's the last thing anyone expected.
"From the first game he looked like he belonged," says American
midfielder Claudio Reyna of crosstown rival Manchester City.
"Being a goalie in England is harder than in any other league in
the world. The pace of the game is nonstop: So many crosses are
brought in, and whenever a backpass is given to the goalie, he's
chased down. Every goalie makes mistakes, but Tim's consistency
this first season has been incredible."
Not to anyone who knows him. All his life Howard has tried to
avoid extreme highs and lows. He carries himself with such
equanimity that even his mother, Esther, who is his polar
opposite in temperament, calls him "an enigma." It's not that
Howard doesn't feel stress. Whenever Esther visited Tim and his
new wife, Laura, this season, she could see the pressure of
playing for Man U causing an increase in his Tourette's symptoms.
The moment Tim got home from practice, he'd start throwing his
head back, blinking his eyes faster, doing a stutter step. During
games, Howard says, his concentration is so fierce that
Tourette's rarely surfaces. But in the locker room beforehand,
his tics--minor compared with many T.S. sufferers'--multiply. He
won't take medicine to control them; he won't risk even a slight
dulling of the reflexes.
Instead, Howard does what he's been doing since his symptoms
first surfaced in the fifth grade: Tamp down any rogue emotion,
any stray impulse, in an endless battle to keep himself in check.
His father, Matthew, is black and Esther white (they divorced in
1984), and at 15, Tim came face-to-face with racism for the first
time; a girlfriend's parents refused, for the entire year they
were dating, to let him in the house. But Tim didn't confront
them or get angry. "I was like, This is someone I'm not going to
change. What can I do?" he says.
When, on July 11, Howard finished MetroStars practice knowing
that the voice mail on his cellphone contained messages saying
whether the British Home Office would allow him to play for Man
U, the nervousness had him "jumping out of my skin." But he
didn't sprint out of the locker room to get a signal. He
showered, ate a meal, and then he boarded a bus before allowing
himself to know the decision that would change his life.
"I've always tried to suppress those things," Howard says.
"Having Tourette's syndrome coming up, I thought, They've always
got that. If I'm the best guy in the world, if I never put a foot
wrong, and they feel like going at me, they can always say, Yeah,
but he's got T.S. So I didn't want to put myself out there too
much. I never wanted to speak out too crazily in the papers, I
never wanted to act bigger than I was, or more arrogant or
pompous. I didn't want it to be a focal point."
Little did he know: Nothing could be more appealing than that to
Man U goalkeeper coach Tony Coton, always on the lookout for men
who, he says, "keep simple things simple." When he first saw
Howard play at the 1999 Pan Am Games, Coton liked not only his
obvious quickness and agility--a basketball-honed athleticism
that allowed him to adjust to high and low shots--but also his
lack of flourish, his no-nonsense ball distribution. Throughout
Howard's last four years with the MetroStars, Coton kept tabs,
asking coaches to send tapes of his progress. Then last spring,
disillusioned with World Cup hero Fabien Barthez and on the
prowl, he watched a tape of Howard's recent performances that, by
the end, had him perched on the edge of his chair. He found
Ferguson and said, "You've got to see this."
Coton didn't doubt that Howard was physically ready. In fact, he
believed that, with the typical goalkeeper peaking in his early
30s, "we could have a big player on our hands for years to come."
Equally appealing was the fact that the U.S. has become the
soccer world's WalMart: Howard's $4.1 million transfer
fee--compared with the $52.5 million paid out to Leeds in 2002
for defender Rio Ferdinand, now with Man U but suspended for
eight months for missing a drug test--makes him the steal of the
decade. The only real unknown for United was how Howard would
handle his immersion into the icy, treacherous waters of European
soccer. The first clue surfaced when, with his future on the
line, things got nasty.
For an american, coming to England to play is nerve-racking, at
best. The system is capricious and political; it took Friedel
five years to get his permit from the British Home Office, and
Bobby Convey, a D.C. United midfielder with twice as many caps as
Howard, was rejected a month after Howard was approved. Still,
Howard's path was hardly smooth. A non-European player must have
played in 75% of his nation's matches, and Howard, falling well
short, was initially rejected last July. To muscle up its appeal
for Howard's hearing, Man U composed testimonials lauding his
qualities, and Howard's agents--Richard Motzkin and Dan
Segal--gathered signatures. The testimonials didn't tip the
balance; everyone involved agrees that by personally vouching for
Howard, Ferguson swayed the six-man board to approve him
unanimously. Friedel, however, refused to sign, sparking rumors
among U.S. players and staff that he had been actively working
against Howard and, later, Convey for reasons ranging from
jealousy to spite to a turf battle between their agents.
Never mind that, according to Friedel and Kasey Keller of
Tottenham, another U.S. keeper who signed a testimonial only
after making changes, the documents were full of false or, at
best, greatly exaggerated information. Or that Professional
Footballers' Association (PFA) official John Bramhall, who sat in
on both hearings, wrote a letter stating that Friedel never spoke
a word against Howard or Convey. Friedel insists--and Bramhall
corroborates--that he contacted the PFA only to ask why
work-permit standards had been so dramatically relaxed since he
Still, the air was so poisoned that Friedel went to Howard's home
in Manchester last September to explain himself. Howard shrugged
it off. If he has been at all disturbed by the fracas, it doesn't
show. Even now, with fellow players still questioning Friedel's
motives and Friedel threatening legal action against Howard's
agents for impugning his character, Howard says Friedel's visit
wasn't even necessary. He sees Friedel often these days and calls
him "a friendly face" and "helpful."
"It's not a problem," Howard adds. "I don't have a beef with
Brad, he doesn't have a beef with me. We're competitors, in the
true sense of the word. There's not an issue, there won't be an
Friedel agrees. But he's not quite ready to pronounce Howard a
success. After all, Howard hasn't been with Man U a full season
yet, and each week the stakes rise to a level he's never known.
Last week the Red Devils were knocked out of the Champions
League, costing them some $18 million in revenue, when the
defense buckled and Howard surrendered a fatal goal to Porto in
the 90th minute. After parrying Benni McCarthy's free kick front
and center, Howard crashed into the post and flailed at the
rebound cracked by an unmarked Costinha; many, including
Ferguson, lay blame on the Man U defenders. But with undefeated
Arsenal looming on March 28, no one will forget Howard lying
there in Old Trafford, face down in the mud.
"Timmy's done very well so far," Friedel says. "He's in a luxury
position, playing with Manchester United, where he can get away
with a few things. That's good, because the pressure's off him a
little bit. But now it's crunch time. Now things go under the
microscope. Because of what he's done so far, I hope the fans
give him some breathing space. But it's absolutely fantastic for
him: He's going to learn to cope."
Once in a great while Howard lets himself go. Sometimes it's
inadvertent, such as when he's told of van Nistelrooy's praise
and, trying to be cautious, reveals a huge ambition. "For a short
period of time I've done some good things," he says. "But that'll
go for naught if I don't keep it going. That's my goal. In order
to be great, in order to be a legend, in order to really stamp
your authority and make a name for yourself historically, you've
got to do great things for a long period of time. That's why they
call them legends. But it's nice to hear."
Sometimes, though, Howard loosens his grip on himself because he
has no choice, because the pressure and fear and joy of living
this fairy tale build and beg for release. The last time came in
the 4-2 win over Man City at Old Trafford, when Howard was having
one of those games: Seeing every ball clearly, reading every move
early, laughing to himself after stoning Reyna, his close friend.
Then when van Nistelrooy scored to ice the victory, Howard heard
the crowd yell and knew the cameras were focused down at the
other end, and he began to scream.
At first it was just to himself, head down a bit, but then,
gazing up at thousands of faces, he figured the heck with it and
screamed back, mouth wide, looking like every other crazy who has
played in goal. No one could hear Howard, of course; that's the
best part. His voice rose, loud and unnoticed, into the English
air. "I'm yelling back at them!" he recalls. "My whole team's out
there celebrating, so I am too. Why not?" Just describing it
makes him giddy: He giggles at the thought, slumps back in his
chair, exhales. He looks like a man set free.
Grant Wahl's Inside U.S. Soccer and complete coverage on the
sport, at si.com/soccer.
"I never wanted TO ACT BIGGER THAN I WAS, or more arrogant or
pompous," Howard says. "I didn't want to be the focal point."
"To come straight into the Premiership and to a club like Man
United? NOBODY COULD EXPECT what he's done."