Howard stands tall for the U.S., World Cup atmosphere enthralls
Tim Howard showed Americans that he's one of the very best at his position
Howard played on despite suffering potential serious injury to his shoulder and ribs
The atmostphere at the World Cup is far more intense than even the Super Bowl
|World Cup Schedule|
RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- So I'm standing with the Man of the Match, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, along with an Israeli reporter, in the Mixed Zone underneath Royal Bafokeng Stadium. For those who aren't fluent in World Cup/Olympic-ese, all participants in a match walk through this Mixed Zone, and reporters can talk to them -- or the players can just walk on by. On a chilly Saturday night in a Triple-A stadium in this beautiful country, Wayne Rooney walked on by. Howard stopped. Several times. When the mobs were done with him, I said to him: "This was a great event. The electricity, the drama, you playing hurt, the rivalry. Great stuff.''
Howard smiled. "I hope all the Americans in all the bars and all the homes felt the same way. My phone's been vibrating constantly since the end of the game. It was ... it was a great night for the game, and for us.''
"Not just for America!'' the Israeli reporter interjected, holding up his own phone. "The world! My country is excited! I have gotten a lot of reaction.''
"Good,'' Howard said. "Let's keep it going.''
This was the first time the United States and England have met in a World Cup match since 1950, and it lived up to everything it was supposed to be, despite the 1-1 draw. It had a hero -- Howard, who played heroically in his 52nd U.S. national game, holding England scoreless for the final 93 minutes of the game, and keeping the potent side scoreless for 61 minutes after suffering a debilitating injury. It had a goat -- England's goalkeeper Robert Green, who Bucknered the tying goal near the end of the first half. It had golden chances for both sides --Jozy Altidore, the Dolphins' biggest Haitian fan (he's dying to own season tickets there, and he loves Ricky Williams) hit the post in the second half, and Emile Heskey, the English forward, had the kind of chance he'll be dreaming about for years. Think I'm kidding? You should have seem the look on Heskey's face as he walked through the Mixed Zone afterward. It was a wish-I-could-have-one-moment-in-time-back look, bemused and sullen.
First, the Howard injury. There was a loose ball in the goal area in the 36th minute. A passive goalkeeper lets his D take responsibility for it, and if the defense comes up short, well, the keeper can always say, "Not my fault.'' Howard, at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, sprinted toward the ball and dove headlong for it, just as Heskey slid in, cleanly, for the ball at the same time. Three things happened at exactly the same time: Howard managed to punch it away with his right hand, Howard's shoulder subluxed and he immediately cried out in pain, and Heskey's cleat hit the keeper's upper right rib area.
Imagine what happened in that one-second span of time. Howard got spiked in the upper ribs by a sliding tackle from a 190-pound striker coming at full speed and, his upper arm bone popped out of the shoulder socket (apparently, from replays), and Howard made a goal-saving save.
"Pretty intense,'' he said, describing the moment. "His spikes got me right here [pointing to the area below in right breast bone], and all of a sudden I was trying to breathe.''
(I have every reason to believe Howard has a significant rib injury, and either a severely bruised shoulder or separated shoulder. As you know, I'm a neophyte about this game, but am advanced enough in my knowledge of the game to know this: Goalkeepers need to use their shoulders and ribs when diving around the goal area. Sunday, I asked U.S. coach Bob Bradley whether he thought there was any chance Howard was coming out after the injury. "It's a given,'' Bradley said. "He's not coming out.'' And I take that to mean, He's not coming out for the rest of this competition, regardless of the pain.)
Now, after the injury, Howard told me he thought he needed 10 minutes to get his feet back under him. But you don't have 10 minutes. You've got two, maybe. And he made it clear he wasn't coming out, whether he could breathe or not. At halftime, a Toradol pain-killing injection in the upper ribs made the second half possible. While it was taking effect, there were a couple of saves he had to deal with: a rising line drive by midfielder Frank Lampard that Howard two-hand-served over the crossbar (and you could tell immediately how it pained him to lift his right arm by the way he brought it down so quickly); and a save on Heskey that both men will replay in their heads for years.
Heskey, a burly forward, had a step on the U.S. defense and came in alone, relatively, on Howard. The book on Howard is he's fearless about ranging far from his goal, and that he's a great angle-player of a goalie. Last month, meeting Howard for the first time, I'd asked him about whether he wanted to be the guy with the game in his hands -- like a quarterback at his own 20 -- at the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, down six on the road with the game on the line. He told me he does love it -- but of course the idea is to have your defense help you some. If the D isn't there, he said Saturday night:
"You have to be bold in those situations. You've got to cut off the angle and read the intentions of the guy with the ball. I tried to read [Heskey], and I thought I did, but at the end, it happens so fast, and I think he caught it too clean.''
The ball was a bazooka, right into the abdomen of Howard. It wasn't a spectacular save, and that's why Heskey will think about this one for a long time -- because he had an opening to his left and just didn't use it. That's the breaks.
Howard has played 52 games now as the U.S. keeper. He had the huge eight-save win, 2-0, over world power Spain in the Confederations Cup semis last year, and that stage was big. This was bigger. This was a great night for American soccer, despite the draw, and a great night for sports.
One other observation about the game: Bradley knows futbol, and football. I went to the U.S. press availability 35 miles north of Johannesburg, at a working farm in Irene, this afternoon and spent a few minutes with Bradley afterward. I hit him with this theory on the first goal of the game Saturday, where midfielder Steven Gerrard snuck inside American midfielder Ricardo Clark deep in U.S. territory and flicked a shot by Howard four minutes into the game for a 1-0 lead: It reminded me of a receiver who gets his outside shoulder inside the cornerback on a post route, and just that tiny edge allows him the necessary space for an accurate quarterback to complete a pass for a big gain.
"Almost,'' Bradley told me. "But that cornerback usually is relying on safety help. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it isn't. In this case, that's exactly what happened to us.''
On the goal, U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu had to chose between one of two English attackers, Rooney and Heskey, to defend, and his temporary indecision created a crease for Gerrard to charge through. I have seen this so many times covering the NFL: A corner who reacts a tenth of a second too slowly, or a safety who isn't exactly where he's supposed to be on time, can cost a team so much. It happened to the Giants in the 1989 playoff game against the Rams, when Flipper Anderson got a quarter of a step on New York corner Mark Collins. Boom. Giants season over. And in the Super Bowl three seasons ago, fifth wideout David Tyree of the Giants got inside of New England corner Asante Samuel on a post route and scored the first New York touchdown of the game. All it takes is a split-second, and that's all it took Gerrard to beat the Americans Saturday night.
"All it takes in a game like this is a second when the reactions are not exactly what they're supposed to be,'' Bradley said. "That's what tips the scales in games with these stakes. That's what I tell the players -- in most games, the window of opportunity is small. In a game like this, with the greatness of the players, the window's smaller.''