Saturday, June 12, 2010

Howard's End

Tim Howard, the U.S. goalkeeper, not only kept his end of the bargain, he rose far above it to help the Yanks secure a 1-1 draw against England on Day 2 at South Africa 2010

English fans may think of Clint Dempsey's goal as Robert Green's gift to the U.S. The English keeper couldn't hold on to a routine shot on goal but it should not diminish the dazzling ball-control ability of Dempsey that led to the goal. He faked three times at the same spot to lose a defender and when his shot slipped away from the disbelieving Green, American fans all over the world, including soldiers in Afghanistan, erupted in wild cheers.

But the hero of the match was Howard. He made three fabulous saves (including one in the 52nd minute when he collided with Emile Heskey and lay writhing in pain after punching the ball away) that inspired the Americans to step up their game.

Particularly in soccer, nothing is more demoralizing than an early goal. When Steve Gerrard scored in the 4th minute to put England ahead, and the English attackers simply outplayed the Americans. for the next 20 minutes or so, I thought it was all over.

But the tide slowly turned. The Americans shed their jitterbugs and found their rhythm. Dempsey's goal at the 40th minute gave the U.S. a surge of confidence.

In the second half, the Americans were equal to anything the English threw at them. In fact, Jozy Altidore almost scored the go-ahead goal in the 65th minute when he made a brilliant run down the left flank and beat Green, only to see his shot hit the goalpost. Landon Donovan also began to play with more flair and imagination. If the first half belonged to England, the second half certainly belonged to the Americans.

As I wrote in "Miracle on Grass," a draw would be a victory for the U.S., and so it was. What is clear is that unless it plays better, England has no chance of winning the Cup. As always, it will go down heroically (think Robert Falcon Scott and his attempt to reach the North Pole) probably in the quarterfinals or even before.

The Americans will also not win the Cup (if they do, it will be beyond miracle) but they have already given a terrific account of themselves in this trial by fire. Today's game was not the Miracle on Grass of 1950 (it would have been if Altidore's shot went in) but if Tim Howard plays the way he did against England, he may come to be regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world.

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