If Team USA feels good about its chances at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, it's in no small part due to a 6'3", tattooed brick wall named Tim Howard.
Since 2010, the New Jersey native has been Team USA’s starting goalkeeper, compiling a .500 winning percentage in four World Cup games. He is, quite literally, one of the only things standing between failure and the first men's World Cup title for America. Fortunately, the 35-year-old Howard isn't new to the game. He grew up as a soccer prodigy, battling through the uncontrollable muscle twitches caused by Tourette's syndrome, to play his first professional game at age 17. His career has included stops in the MLS with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, as well the English club Manchester United and his current team, Everton.
Ironically, his greatest career achievement might not be saving a goal, but scoring one. In an English Premiere League game, he became only the fourth goalie in league history to achieve the rare feat.
As the men’s national team faces off against powerhouses Germany, Portugal and Ghana in group play beginning June 16, we caught up with Howard to ask about his battle with Tourette's, his miraculous goal, and Team USA’s chances.
Pundits have described Team USA’s draw as the “group of death.” Is that a fair assessment?
If you go to the World Cup and expect to get an easy draw, then I think you’re under some sort of illusion. Also, because of how the seeds were weighted, we were always going to get tough teams. It wasn’t a surprise to the players. We need to play at our best over the course of three games and that won’t change no matter what group we’re in.
The U.S. has fielded arguably its strongest team ever. What’s contributed to the development of American soccer players in recent years?
Our players have gotten better because a lot of them have gone over to play abroad at a young age. Competing against the best competition hardens you as a player, so when we come together, our group is stronger.
How do you decide which way to dive during a penalty kick?
Sometimes it’s luck, sometimes it’s instinct, but strikers today are so clever most of the time goalies don’t get it right. I used to think there were telltale giveaways, but it’s really a chess match. A lot of times strikers go on a hard run up, then slow down or lean one way and shoot the other. It’s a crapshoot.
You’ve been known to play through broken bones. (Late in a 2013 Everton match, he broke two non-weight-bearing bones in his back and finished the game.) Care to explain?
It’s either toughness or stupidity—I haven’t quite figured it out. Adrenaline is the best pain reliever and often that’s what helped get me through. I’m also of the school of thought that if you can play on, you should. You should never take yourself off the field if you don’t have to. Again, that might be stupid.
In sixth grade you were diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome. What impact has that had on you?
It has had a huge positive impact on my life. There are all sorts of challenges with Tourette’s because it’s such a noticeable condition. You can’t hide it. Its challenges made me resilient and pushed me beyond whatever barriers were in front of me. I can get knocked down and continue to get back up.
As a member of the Everton team, you live in England most of the year. What aspects of European culture have you embraced?
I drink espresso after every meal. And driving on the opposite side of the road. You have to embrace that or else you won’t last very long.
Tell us how you scored a goal (in 2012).
It was a pass back that set up just right, and I cleared it as hard as I could. It was a blustery night and the ball caught the wind and, as it bounced, the other team’s forward chased it. He threw his goalie off, and the ball skipped and went in. It was crazy, but, unfortunately, we lost the game 2-1.
You’ve got a lot of body art. What is the newest tattoo you’ve had inked?
It was by Cally-Jo who works at Bang Bang studio in New York and is a superstar. I told her I wanted an original piece, and she did an old Victorian-style sacred heart.
What’s on your training table?
I follow the Paleo Diet pretty religiously—high proteins and fats. Most stuff is off limits, but my cheat meal is usually pizza and Ben & Jerry’s.
You’re 6-foot-3. Can you dunk?
Dunking a basketball has always been a way to measure my athletic ability, going all the way back to high school. I used to be able to dunk it on the first try, but these days I need to warm up first.
What was it like to play your first professional soccer game before you had graduated from high school?
It was tough at the time, but, when I look back on it, I think all of those games paid so many dividends. Those games allowed me to make mistakes, to see things differently, and, as the games got faster at every level, they forced me to get faster in order to move up and climb the ladder professionally.
You can spend large parts of the game not directly involved in the action. What are you thinking about during those lulls?
My mind is very clear. I’m in the moment. I’m doing a lot of talking. Even when people can’t hear me, I’m managing the game. I react more than I think. I don’t think much, to be honest.
As a member of the Everton team, you live in Europe most of the year. What one thing do you miss most from the U.S.?
The weather. The weather over here (in England) sucks. And the American culture. I appreciate European culture, but I also like being home (in North Brunswick, N.J.) and flying under the radar and not being noticed.
Tell us something few people know about you.
I’m very much Jekyll & Hyde on (and off) the field. I’m zoned in, passionate about winning and very demanding of myself and my teammates. And I show that. People see it and say that I yell and scream. Off the field, I’m private and quiet until I warm up to people. I like to keep to myself, but I think sometimes that comes off as arrogance. I’ve got two different sides to me.
—By Matt McCue