The editorial staff at MLSsoccer.com is looking back over the year with our Best of 2011 awards, running Dec. 19 through Jan. 2. Each day we'll hand out an award in a variety of categories culled from the storylines of MLS and US international players, including Biggest Controversy, Gaffeof the Year and, via fan vote, the Moment of the Year.
Managing editor Jonah Freedman offers up the latest installment with his look at Tim Howard, our vote for the US men's national team Player of the Year. It might have been a tumultuous year in just about every way for the 'Nats in 2011, but was there ever any doubt who'd be the man serving as the last line of defense?
It’s nearly impossible to look back on the US national team’s year without feeling like you’ve eaten a rice cake: You know you tried to feed your hunger with something, but it wasn’t all that satisfying, it didn’t taste all that good and you’re still starving.
The sour taste of the Gold Cup final thumping in June still lingers. And though the replacement of Bob Bradley with Jurgen Klinsmann in July was a temporary thrill ride, the results since the German took over haven’t exactly inspired the masses yet.
In all, it’s been a turbulent year of enormous change. Bradley’s staid tactics and same old faces were replaced by Klinsmann’s dreamy up-tempo attack, implemented by some of the same players, some who were long discarded by Bradley and some new names.
It’s enough to make a US fan’s head swim. But through all of the change, the tough talk, the hard-fought victories and the demoralizing defeats, there’s been one thing fans could always count on: Tim Howard will deliver between the sticks.
Lost in the shuffle of regime change is the fact that the US goalkeeper appeared in 15 games for the national team in 2011 – that’s more than any other player in the pool (except Carlos Bocanegra, who also had 15 appearances). More impressively, it marked a career high for the 32-year-old, who has been donning a US kit now for a decade.
There were times this past year when you weren’t sure if the US were actually going to hold down a lead – or a draw – yet there was Howard to the rescue, time and again. Indeed, that Gold Cup opening win over Canada could have finished with a much different score line if the Everton No. 1 didn’t perform some late-game heroics.
We might not even be talking about disappointment in the final if Howard hadn’t held down the fort in the semis in a 1-0 win over Panama. And if we recall way back to March, he was positively genius in a 1-1 friendly draw with Argentina, making five thrilling stops in a Man of the Match performance.
Of course, Howard couldn't be Superman every game. He wasn't on top of his game in Mexico's 4-2 comeback at the Rose Bowl, and no matter what he did, he was tragically helpless in a 4-0 revenge throttling by Spain in a pre-Gold Cup friendly three weeks earlier.
But especially in the last four months, as Klinsmann has tinkered with the Americans’ entire set-up, it’s been crucial that the USMNT’s main source of comfort has been the man in the back. When Howard backstopped the US to a much-needed 3-2 win at Slovenia in November, he collected his 38th win, moving past Tony Meola to assume No. 2 on the list of all-time winningest US ‘keepers.
Feast or famine, win or lose, Howard will show up and do his job – no matter who’s around him or who’s coaching him. And for that, fans should be eternally grateful that he hasn’t changed for anyone.
2. Clint Dempsey – Deuce emerged as the main attacking threat for the US in 2011 in any formation. The Fulham star logged five goals – including three in the Gold Cup – and has proven he can be effective at any position on the pitch.
3. Steve Cherundolo – If you ask most of the US squad, losing the three-time World Cup veteran defender to an ankle injury early in the Gold Cup final was a huge reason for the their eventual undoing. That tells you all you need to know. Regardless of who played around him, Cherundolo was a rock all year for the team.
WATCH: Discussing the USMNT Player of the Year