Tim Howard returns home to NJ one last time, with legacy on his mind

On Saturday, one last time as a professional soccer player, Tim Howard is going home.

Against the club that gave him his MLS debut, then known as the MetroStars, the Colorado Rapids' goalkeeper and US soccer legend returns to his home state of New Jersey to take on the New York Red Bulls (7 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in the US and on DAZN in Canada). Howard long had this fixture circled on his farewell tour — the 40-year-old pointed to this game as the one road trip he was most looking forward to after announcing his retirement in January.

Though the North Brunswick native hasn't lived in his state since departing the MetroStars to begin his English Premier League career in 2003, there's nothing quite like coming home. 

“I’m a proud New Jersey native, no doubt," Howard told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. "I got some Jersey tattoos. I haven’t lived there in a while but I was born and raised there. I wouldn’t have it any other way, New Jersey is special. I’m thankful for my upbringing.”

Howard already knows of about 50 family and friends who will be in the stands, though the former Manchester United netminder expects a few more to hit him with late ticket requests.

"I got some lazy friends who will call me Friday," Howard jokes. 

Despite those friendly faces, Howard isn't expecting any sort of rousing ovation from the Red Bull faithful. “I don’t expect a warm reception anywhere I go, I learned that a long time ago," Howard said with a laugh. "If they do, that’s great. If not? That’s okay too.”

But that doesn't lessen the impact he's had on the state's soccer community, on the one-time children who are now adults who played soccer because of him. Those who pursued playing in goal because of him, or who became Evertonians, or who are influenced to make the journey to Red Bull Arena to see one of the state's greatest athletes and ambassadors.

Humble beginnings

Tim Howard with the MetroStars in 2001 | Courtesy of New York Red Bulls

Howard grew up in central New Jersey, where his athleticism shined in both soccer and basketball.

“Soccer picked me," Howard said proudly with no hesitation. "I had thoughts of how good I was at basketball, but I wasn’t really that good. How far I could go in soccer vs. how far I could go in basketball, it was no competition.”

Still, he says basketball is his first true love and recalls his times with the high school team as part of what shaped him. 

“I cherish those moments, it’s some of the greatest sporting moments I’ve had," Howard said. "Taught me a lot of lessons about friendship, life and loyalty. Sports, yes, but more than anything, it taught me brotherhood. I probably could have played college ball somewhere small on the East Coast, but I think I made the right decision.”

It wasn't the most glamorous decision from the start, though.

Howard's professional career kicked off in 1997 as an 18-year-old with the North Jersey Imperials of the USISL before joining the MetroStars a year later. In its infancy, MLS then wasn't quite what it is now. Not only by way of players and stadiums but training facilities, too. 

Howard and the MetroStars trained at Kean University, a Division III program in Union, New Jersey, a far cry from the Red Bulls' facility in Hanover today. The locker room was part of an old academic building, a big parking lot away from a bumpy grass field which got dry when warm and muddied when wet. Players were responsible for replacing their own divots. 

“We walked in and there was those metal cage lockers and wooden benches like you had in high school," Howard said with a smile, his voice beaming with nostalgia. "I appreciate coming from those humble beginnings and being here 21 years later seeing the fruits of the labor from this league. It’s special.”

Howard departed six years later in a trailblazing transfer to Manchester United and the glory of the Premier League. After up-and-down stretches at Old Trafford, he moved to Everton in 2006. By the time he returned to MLS and the Rapids in 2016, he was a legend on the Blue half of Merseyside.

Meanwhile, Major League Soccer didn't look much like he left it. 

“We talk about how this game has grown, it’d incredible," Howard said. "Gosh. From all of the fans, stadiums, new teams, massive global players—it’s night and day. To be able to have experienced all of those as a player is pretty darn special.”

Legacy

Tim Howard last season | USA Today Sports Images

Perhaps the greatest keeper the United States has produced, Howard is calling time on his illustrious career. 

He made 399 Premier League appearances and another 182 so far in MLS. He won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2001, earned a PFA Premier League Team of the Year place in 2003-04, took U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year honors twice and Concacaf's Men's Goalkeeper of the Year three times.

Internationally, Howard won two Gold Cups and appeared in two World Cups across 121 caps. He owns the record for most saves in a World Cup game, with 16 memorable stops against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup round of 16.

A career saturated with accolades, highlights and memories all ends soon. And Howard insists it's time.

“I was ready for this season to come, it’s been on my radar for three or four years," he said. "When you think about it vs. actually the time coming, it’s different. I’m ready for it. That’s why I made the decision. It’s going to be bittersweet, but way more sweet than bitter. I’m thankful for the good fortune to play professional for 22 years, starting in 1997 with the NJ Imperials. I’m a lucky boy.”

Wins, saves, caps and trophies can be counted, but the numbers alone wouldn't come close to encapsulating Howard's legacy. He has been called the "most notable individual with Tourette Syndrome around the world," not allowing his diagnosis to come between his dreams. Howard inspired a generation that grew up watching him, particularly in his own backyard, on the fields he once trained when with the MetroStars. 

Derek Phells grew up 20 minutes away from Howard's hometown, a fellow mixed-race athlete from central Jersey. Phells ended up playing goalie at Kean from 2015-19, practicing on the same unspectacular grass, using the same unspectacular locker room as Howard did. 

And he's sure to get to Red Bull Arena for Howard's last professional trip home. 

"I became a goalie because of him, my first college start I was wearing his No. 24," Phells said. "As a half-black, half-white multisport athlete from central Jersey, Howard was someone I could really identify with. When he announced his retirement, I knew I had to see one of the most influential athletes in my life in person on Saturday." 

That tale is not unique for an Athlete who was a role model for so many. They also never get old, Howard says.

“When you look at legacy, part of that is people playing goalkeeper, people wearing 24, people supporting Everton," he said. "Those are things I cherish. It tells me I’m old, but it tells me I did something right that my career meant a lot to a few people. I’m humbled, I’m thankful for that. It’s not lost on me when people tell me those stories, I thoroughly enjoy them."

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