SALVADOR, Brazil – It’d been more than 50 years since anyone had done something similar. Perhaps even longer. Nobody knows. The records don’t exist before 1966.
On a sultry Tuesday night in Salvador, with a place in the World Cup quarterfinals at stake, the number 16 became the benchmark for goalkeepers on the sport's biggest stage. Just pardon Tim Howard if it’s a benchmark he’d rather forget.
One by one – via sprawling kicks, full-extension dives and sure-handed punches – Howard went about setting a tournament record for saves. Save by save, he kept his team afloat, staving off the inevitable on a night in which Belgium nearly set a record for shots themselves.
“That’s what I signed up to do,” Howard said. “Stick my face in front of balls.”
And while he may have been nothing short of magnificent in the Americans’ heartbreaking 2-1 defeat, a revelation in net for 120 minutes under fire, don’t expect Howard to celebrate that fact after watching his team come up short in the Round of 16 for a second straight World Cup.
As US Soccer president Sunil Gulati put it, this is all part of the job description. Like Tony Meola, Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller before him, life as US No. 1 often calls for heroics.
“Nobody goes into a tournament like this with our team and doesn’t expect Timmy to play really well,” Gulati said. “… He’s expected to make big saves. Tonight he made a lot of big saves, so that is maybe beyond [expectations], but that’s what he’s supposed to do. And Timmy would tell you the same thing. He did his job tonight.”
But was it Howard’s best-ever shift in a career littered with result-saving performances?
Gulati wouldn’t even indulge the question. Jurgen Klinsmann sidestepped it during his postgame press conference. Howard was a bit more diplomatic, but the message was essentially the same.
“Maybe,” he said. “It was of a spectacular variety, but we lost so I don’t know if it can be counted up there.”
Of course, more memorable than the 16 goals Howard prevented were the two he could not at Arena Fonta Nova.
The first came just three minutes into added time, an exhausted US defense first allowing substitute Romelu Lukaku a free run down the right flank then Kevin De Bruyne the time and space to finish just inside the far post.
Howard said he thought he got a toe to it. For the first time on the night, that didn’t matter.
And he could do nothing about Lukaku’s coup de grace, a near-post hit so clean and so precise that Howard may have had trouble keeping it out no matter where it was on frame.
Fifteen minutes later, the final whistle drawing the Americans tournament to a close, Howard held his head high. While he teammates dropped to the ground, exhausted and despondent, their goalkeeper strode out toward midfield.
He traded jerseys with Lukaku, his club teammate at Everton. He applauded the American contingent in the stands. He did the same things he’s done 104 times in red, white and blue – a record for American goalkeepers.
“He was fantastic, there’s no other way to put it,” Michael Bradley said. He’s somebody that we rely on so much not only for his performances on the field but for his leadership and his presence.
“Honestly, there’s not enough good things to say about him as a player, as a man, as a leader. He’s somebody who I have grown very close with over the past however many years and we’ve been out on the field for a lot of tough days together.”
The only remaining question is how many more days like are yet to come.
By the time Russia 2018 rolls around, Howard will be 39 years old. Certainly not ancient for a goalkeeper, but perhaps it will be time to pass the baton to Brad Guzan, his willing deputy and potential game-changer in his own right.
Perhaps. Or perhaps he’ll push on, a newly-signed contract at Everton getting him through to his fourth World Cup.
“Those decisions will be made when I’m less emotional, things settle down and I have a few important conversations with a few important people,” Howard said.
For now, he’s got the unenviable task of digesting yet another World Cup exit in which he did everything possible to keep his team alive and kicking, but came up just short.
He’s a record holder, but he’s going home. Bittersweet? How could it be anything else?
“Thirty one teams get their heart broken,” Howard said. “It has to end sometime. It ended a little bit early for us. It was a good Belgium team. Sometimes you give everything you have and do your absolute best and it just doesn’t stack up. That was tonight.”