Bookending a round of 16 in a World Cup that’s been about goals were two people whose day job it is to stop them. The pre-quarterfinals began with Julio Cesar keeping Brazil alive and ended with Tim Howard’s world-record effort. In five of the eight games, goalkeepers were chosen Man of the Match by fans worldwide voting online.
Three of them, including Howard, are going home. Against Belgium in Salvador, Howard faced football’s equivalent of a firing squad, his 16 saves beating the previous best of 13 from Peru’s Ramon Quieroga in the 1978 World Cup. Had substitute Chris Wondolwoski not scuffed a shot from close in regulation time, it would have put the USA in the quarterfinal completely against the run of play.
“That’s a crazy stat. But bittersweet I suppose. You know, I don’t really keep count. It sucks that we lost. So that’s the overriding thing unfortunately,” said Howard after receiving his award. He also said this could be the least favourite award of his career and that the arrival of Romelu Lukaku made the difference.
In no game was Howard able to keep a clean sheet but the Everton goalkeeper’s contribution in USA’s run here was possibly the greatest. He doesn’t think about it that way, saying “that’s what I signed up to do, stick my face in front of balls” but coach Juergen Klinsmann has had no doubts about the man whose evening on Tuesday began with a stop from Belgium’s Divock Origi.
With boot, ankle and hands, Howard then defied an attacking torrent that flowed faster than beer at Happy Hour in Antwerp pubs. Howard’s end was breached in the 93rd minute by Kevin de Bruyne and then by Lukaku but after two hours, he had saved a shot nearly every eight minutes.
Statistics provider Opta said only three teams have managed Belgium’s 39 shots since 1966. Yet, Howard was why USA, seeming turbo-charged after conceding, felt they could still have won this thriller. Someone tweeted that it was the best performance by an American goalkeeper since Sylvester Stallone in Escape to Victory. USA’s got a new secretary of defence was another tweet.
“In a World Cup, if you want to go far, you need one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and we have that one,” Klinsmann had said, adding that he rated Howard as one of the best five in the business now.
“I have to say that what Tim Howard did tonight was phenomenal, outstanding and amazing. He kept us in the game. He had an absolutely amazing match and you have to give him all the plaudits,” said the USA coach after being knocked out.
Howard was praised by Belgium skipper Vincent Kompany and their coach Marc Wilmots. “We had 27 shots on goal, the first came after the second minute and we didn’t stop attacking for the remaining 118 minutes. I want to congratulate... Tim Howard who had a fantastic game..,” said Wilmots.
USA defender Matt Besler said Howard is a great communicator. “He’s talking to us almost too much, it feels like. But, it’s great. I tell him, I never want him to stop talking,” he said.
Belgium goalie Thibaut Courtois needed to make one-fourth of Howard’s saves but had it not been for a reflex stop to deny Clint Dempsey from a well-worked free-kick routine, that match could well have gone into the shootouts. It meant Courtois has never lost in 21 internationals he has started. It also rounded off another stage of the competition where Manuel Neuer, Rais M’bolhi, Guillermo Ochoa and Keylor Navas shared the spotlight with James Rodrigues, Lionel Messi, Paul Pogba and De Bruyne.