It's been less than a year since Tim Howard became America's World Cup hero, staring down an unrelenting Belgian attack and turning away 16 goddamn shots with the grim resolve of an action hero who's low on ammo. In fact, go ahead and watch each one of those beautiful, thrilling saves one more time. Then, if you're a casual soccer fan who only ever wants to remember Tim Howard as the guy who looks at a charging striker like John Wick lining up a headshot, walk away from your computer right now.
After the World Cup, Howard returned to his role as the starting keeper for Everton in the English Premier League. In 20 league matches, he's faced 71 shots on goal and seen 31 of those shots find the net behind him, according to Foxsports.com. He's surrendering 1.55 goals per game, which is the third-worst rate in the Premier League. These are all very bad numbers!
Now, we must acknowledge that goalkeeper statistics are mostly useless, and that a limp Everton squad featuring a defensive midfield that specializes in creating expressways to the box hasn't been doing Howard any favors. But anyone who's been watching Everton all season (hi, I make poor life decisions) knows that Howard's ugly stats aren't telling lies. It's not just that he's letting a ton of shots get past him. It's that he's doing so while looking like a confused, overmatched scrub.
Take Sunday's game against Leicester City, the kind of bottom-table team that Everton has been unable to handle all season. Howard gave up two goals, and neither felt earned. Just a few minutes after Steven Naismith put Everton up 1-0, Howard managed to make a complete mess out of a relatively harmless cross:
Howard wasn't necessarily wrong to come diving out for that cross—John Stones was probably going to get there in time to flick the ball out of bounds, but Howard likely didn't see him—but that's a ball that he absolutely has to corral and hold to his chest. Instead, he takes a one-handed swipe at the ball and creates a situation in which two defenders and one keeper managed to put the ball right on the foot of the lone attacker.
The second goal of the day was even worse:
After badly misjudging a cross that he had no chance of reaching, Howard ends up in a pile while his defenders scramble to cover for him. He gets up in plenty of time to get back into position, but notice how Stones had to go diving toward the goal line to cover Howard's ass. That took Stones out of position, and he wasn't able to close down Esteban Cambiasso's wide-open shot as a result.
It might feel like I'm just cherry-picking two recent examples here, but I promise you I'm not. Howard's been doing shit like this all year—failing to catch shots cleanly, misplaying crosses, and just generally looking overwhelmed on the pitch. In a game against Sunderland, I watched him dribble the ball outside of the penalty box, panic as an attacker came bearing down on him, and then just, like, fall on the ball:
By some miracle, Howard managed to avoid touching the ball with his arms, making this the highlight of his season.
For most Everton fans, none of this is really all that big of a deal—aging Premier League keepers are allowed to have bad seasons—but for an American fan riding the wave of the USMNT's inspired World Cup run into the EPL season, watching Tim Howard run around the penalty box like a man who doesn't really know what he's doing has been a fairly traumatic experience. It's been like giddily rushing to the theater to see The Matrix Reloaded, only to discover that this time, Neo gets both of his hands shot off. It's been like watching Muhammad Ali suffer a 12-round beating at the hands of some jobber just a few months after the Liston fight. It's been no fucking fun at all, man.
Maybe Tim Howard will get his shit together in time for the 2018 World Cup, a tournament he's said as recently as last week that he has every intention of playing in, and those of us who followed him to Everton will get our Captain America back. It's possible that he's just not in his best physical and mental shape right now—a full season of international duty, a World Cup, and a full Premier League campaign makes for a pretty grueling schedule—and his year-long sabbatical from the USMNT well help him regain his form.
Or maybe he'll keep playing like shit, and Jürgen Klinsmann will have no choice but to put Brad Guzan in front of the net in 2018. That might actually be the best thing that could happen, though. As someone who's spent the last six months watching an American hero die a slow death, I envy the casual fans whose last memory of Tim Howard will be him turning in one of the greatest athletic performances any of us have ever seen. Hold on tight to that Tim Howard, America, and don't ever turn on an Everton game.