A 1-0 victory for the USA against England tomorrow evening would not have quite as seismic an impact as the same scoreline did in the World Cup 60 years ago, but it would still be a shocker, as would even a draw. Stranger things have happened, though, not least at Belo Horizonte in 1950, when the Americans were footballing minnows. Having reached the last eight of the World Cup in 2002, beating Portugal on the way, they are minnows no longer. Indeed, during a South African winter only 12 months ago they were good enough to overcome mighty Spain to reach the final of the Confederations Cup, albeit a result which relied to a large extent on the impenetrable last line of Yankee defence: goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Can the man who thwarted Fernando Torres and Co back then thwart Wayne Rooney and Co now? That is among the more interesting questions to be resolved in Rustenberg tomorrow, and it is given added resonance by 31-year-old Howard's reputation as one of the most consistent goalkeepers in the Premier League these last few years, a keeper who four months ago in consecutive league matches for Everton stood tall as first Chelsea and then his former club Manchester United left Goodison Park without a single point between them. He also kept clean sheets home and away against Manchester City's expensive, oil-fired strike force. And the season before, at Wembley in the semi-final of the FA Cup, it was Howard more than anyone who put Everton through at United's expense, saving in the penalty shoot-out from Rio Ferdinand and Dimitar Berbatov.
After seven years in English football Howard knows more than a little about defying Premier League sharp-shooters, and so I ask him whether the American coach Bob Bradley is relying on him to supply vital intelligence. "Maybe a little bit," he says, "but scouting and video analysis is so thorough now that it won't rest on my shoulders." Nevertheless, he must have watched the likes of Rooney and Jermain Defoe over the course of the English season knowing that in Rustenberg he might have to combat their guile?
"Well, yeah, but soccer is so improvisational, it's not about set plays. A guy like Rooney, you ask what his tendencies are, and the answer is that he can shoot with his left foot, his right foot, he's a great header of the ball, he can chase it down, he's clever, he has a good touch. The same thing with Defoe. He pulls the trigger from anywhere, he's like a cat inside the box. You try not to over-think as a goalkeeper. You use your instincts and hope that lots of experience in England will help. When you play at the highest level, you know you're going to be tested."
Whatever unfolds in the Royal Bafokeng stadium tomorrow, there's little doubt that Howard will be inspired rather than intimidated by facing a team he fully expects to reach the last four, if not the last two. "I might be putting a jinx on them but I believe in this England team. In England they're under such a microscope that it's difficult for people to step back and say, these are a really good bunch of players. But Rooney, Defoe, Terry, Barry, Lampard, Gerrard, Ashley Cole... these are not young kids, these are seasoned, mature players with a heck of a lot to offer in this World Cup. It would not surprise me, hand on heart, to see them in the semi-final fighting for a place in the final."
And what level of success for the USA would surprise him? The quarter-finals again? Perhaps even beyond? Howard – who as fourth-choice keeper didn't quite make it into the 2002 squad, and was number two behind Kasey Keller in the USA's disappointing 2006 campaign – welcomes such a thrilling notion with a grin and a sensible sense of perspective.
"Well," he says, "we have gotten to the stage now where the expectation of our support is to get through the first round. Not to do that would be a failure, for sure, but from there anything can happen. If we play well in the second round but bow out, is that considered success? I don't know. What we do know is that we're resilient. By keeping our shape well and hitting teams on the break, we can pull off results, like beating Spain. Against England a draw would set us up really well. In most major tournaments four points gets you out of the group, but sometimes you get out with three, or sometimes four doesn't get you out. You can't hang everything on the first game."
As with just about every team in this World Cup, there are several key players on whom success depends. One of them is Howard himself, but let's spare his blushes and consider the others. "Clint Dempsey makes us go in attack. He has flair, he's creative, but also aggressive. Jozy Altidore is a big player for us, who scored big goals in qualifying. We need him to be on his game. Michael Bradley is our engine, in the middle of midfield breaking things up and starting counter-attacks, as well as helping the back four. And then there's Landon..."
Ah yes, Landon Donovan, the nearest thing to a talisman in the USA side, and a team-mate of Howard's for 13 games last season while on loan to Everton from LA Galaxy. For all his numerous international caps (123 of them) and a deserved reputation as the finest home-grown player in Major League Soccer, nothing will serve Donovan as well in South Africa, Howard believes, as his recent stint in the Premier League.
"He was already a very confident individual, but that was a really productive loan spell. He was an integral part of a team that got excellent results away at Arsenal, and beat Chelsea, United and City at home. To have been part of that will give him added confidence, knowing that he played in the top league against the top teams and he wasn't lost out there."
Howard, too, knows now that he can keep any footballing company and not feel over-awed, in which respect he has changed since Sir Alex Ferguson brought him into English football in 2003. "I am confident in the goalkeeper I have become," he tells me. "I no longer make decisions on the field and look to someone else to confirm that I've done the right thing, which is what I did at United, looking around for reinforcement from the superstars around me, guys like Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand. That was a great time in my career but I had to learn a lot very quickly. My first game was the Charity Shield against Arsenal with maybe 80,000 there, I was 23 years old, and I just ran on adrenalin. Now I play in big games and I'm calm."
Games don't come much bigger than World Cup fixtures against England, not that it will even register on the consciousness of many of his compatriots. Football – soccer if we must – has a committed following in the US, but if Howard needs any proof that it remains a minority-interest sport over there, he only has to head back to his home in Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, that's one of the reasons he likes going home, leaving behind the football-crazy north-west of England.
"It's nice, my life changes," he says. "Once in a while I get recognised, but not much more than once every two weeks, maybe by a kid who plays a soccer video game."
Will the Beautiful Game ever be fully assimilated in the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Free? Despite its growing popularity among American children and the colossal fame of LA Galaxy's other star player, David Beckham, the answer, according to Howard, is an unequivocal no.
"It's cool during the World Cup, when news outlets that wouldn't normally cover soccer suddenly pay attention to it. Oprah, Time Magazine, 60 Minutes, ESPN, they're all giving it big-time recognition. But basically I'd say that it's the equivalent of basketball in the UK. There's a core group of fans who really love it, but you won't ever get 20,000 people going to watch basketball matches here. You can't see it overtaking rugby or cricket in 30 years' time because it's just not bred into the culture, and it's the same with soccer in the States. We need the 2022 World Cup, to show [the non-believers] that this is serious stuff."
In the meantime, he adds, the lack of a strong cultural heritage is an obstacle that may continue to impede American success in the World Cup even as more and more players prove themselves in leading club sides around the world. "We produce strong athletes, who can run through walls, but we have to get better technically. We produce good passers of the ball, but missing out players with passes, creating that numbers advantage, is something that comes from going out in your school clothes and playing in the street. Youth soccer is highly organised in the States, but it's not a game played in the street, and that's what needs to happen to produce truly world-class players."
If the World Cup could be won by eloquence, the USA would have it wrapped up already. Howard is by no means the only American player who exudes a keen intelligence, and their coach, Bob Bradley (father of the midfield dynamo Michael), is another deep thinker, who has studied Fabio Capello's methods for years. "I played for him in New York for a season," says Howard of Bradley, "and I've known him since I was a kid. He's relatively laid back, not overbearing. The national team camp isn't terribly strict, there are just a few general guidelines we're expected to follow." So, Bradley is no Capello in that regard then? Howard won't be drawn into a comparison. "Let's just say he knows how to get into the psyche of the American players, and everyone seems to take to his tactics."
If Bradley gets those tactics right tomorrow, and his team plays a blinder, Howard is aware that Rustenberg 2010 might just join Belo Horizonte 1950 in US footballing lore. Like all American soccer fans, he knows all about the improbable World Cup victory six decades ago.
"Everyone still talks about it, and it's still held up as a benchmark, even after we beat Spain. I've met Walter Bahr [defensive lynchpin of that 1950 win] a few times. He's still knocking around and a real gentleman. He's very encouraging to all the US players." Howard smiles. "He knows how far we've come in 60 years."Reuse content