There was a moment, about 45 minutes after the U.S.'s unlikely 1--1 draw with England, when goat met hero in the bowels of Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, and the crestfallen England keeper, Robert Green, leaned over to say something into the ear of his opposite number, Tim Howard. "Nice match, mate," Green said softly, and just that quickly, he was gone.
Green will be haunted forever after allowing the softest goal of his life in the biggest game of his life. Howard, in contrast, was the hobbled hero of the night. In the 29th minute the 31-year-old New Jersey native took a cleat to the ribs and suffered a bruised shoulder when burly England striker Emile Heskey slid into a challenge in the U.S. goal box. Howard was down for three minutes as backups Brad Guzan and Marcus Hahnemann began warming up on the end line, but he got up and grimaced through heavy pressure for the final 65 minutes of the match, making three of his six saves to keep the draw intact.
Now the question is how healthy Howard, who took a painkilling shot of Toradol at halftime, will be for the two remaining matches in group play, on Friday against Slovenia—the Yanks are 0--6 against feisty and physical Central and Eastern European teams in World Cup play since 1990—and on June 23 against Algeria. On Sunday, U.S. coach Bob Bradley said, "You'd certainly expect to see him on the field again Friday." Howard was cleared to play against Slovenia on Monday, but how much will the aftereffects of the impact linger?
Howard looked genuinely pained when asked about Green's gaffe on the U.S. goal, a save a 12-year-old would make. "It's tough. Just tough," he said. "No one wants to see that. This is the biggest stage in the world. Sometimes, things like this happen. But the way he handled it tonight—that's the way he is. All class." Goalkeepers in the top level in England are a fraternity, and Howard knows many of them well. "Not many people know what we go through," he said. "There's a lot of pressure on your shoulders in games like this, and all of us [goalkeepers] look at something like that goal and feel for Robert."
Howard, in contrast, played flawlessly. It might not have been the best night of his 52-game national team career, but considering the stage, only one match compares: his eight-save effort in the 2--0 upset of Spain in last year's Confederations Cup semifinal.
After the England match Howard explained why there was no way he would leave when hurt. "I was not going to limp off," he said. "I've waited too long for this moment. What I needed was 10 minutes, but I didn't have that. What was tough right away was trying to catch my breath, wondering if I'd broken a rib, because he kicked me flush. But I was able to go on. In a couple of hours I know I'll feel it pretty good."
Saturday's 1--1 draw underscored how critical a great keeper is to surviving in this tournament. The U.S. has one; England doesn't. For the Americans to make it to the round of 16, it'll be essential for Howard to stay at his best for the final two games of the group. Get the Toradol ready.