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A YANK IN MANCHESTER
S.L. Price
March 22, 2004
In an adventure too improbable for him to have even imagined, American Tim Howard has emerged as a star in goal for soccer's most fabled club
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March 22, 2004

A Yank In Manchester

In an adventure too improbable for him to have even imagined, American Tim Howard has emerged as a star in goal for soccer's most fabled club

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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 applied.

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 issue."

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.

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