Eleven days ago, Everton FC and US Men's National Team goalkeeper Tim Howard fractured two bones in his back in an FA Cup win against Oldham Athletic. He's expected to be out for about a month. Though the bones aren't weight-bearing and the injury could've been much more serious, it probably couldn't have come at a much worse time for US Soccer or Everton.
The American keeper is one of the best in the world, and his absence has already caused waves. Everton was able to pull out a win against relegation candidates Reading in the Premier League a week ago, without him. But today, the Toffees lost in the FA cup quarterfinal 3-0 to Wigan after conceding three goals in four minutes. Wigan's goals were all well-taken, especially the third, and though it's unlikely that Howard would've saved any of the shots himself, his strength as a defensive organizer was missed during the first, a corner, and the second, when an Everton central defender got caught ball-watching on a counter, which allowed a Wigan player to streak through for a breakaway goal. Everton has a match next Sunday against Manchester City, which will probably result in a loss, before soccer around the world recesses for two weeks during to make way for World Cup Qualifiers.
Howard will miss the two USMNT games in that period, against Costa Rica and away to Mexico, that are vital to the team's hopes of qualifying for next year's World Cup in Brazil. USA has advanced to the North American's final round, but sit in sixth and last place after one match. The top three teams qualify automatically, while the fourth-place team will enter a two-match playoff with Oceania's winner for a final spot. Though USA is expected to beat Costa Rica at home, it'll be harder without Howard. Beating Mexico in Mexico City was always going to be a Herculean endeavor, and now it might be ambitious of the US to expect to any kind of result in the round's first leg of the heated rivalry. If the USMNT manages to choke away both games, they'll have a lot of ground to catch up to avoid repeating their second international embarrassment in as many years after missing out on last year's Olympics.
The absence of Everton's leader will have even more of an impact on the English Premier League, and over a half dozen teams still vying for a European spot. First, though, an explanation of the continental rules:
• The Premier League is awarded four Champions League spots a year: a spot to each of the previous season's top four, unless one of the teams, like Chelsea last year, wins the tournament. Arsenal FC is the only team left in the Champions League, however, and the chances of them winning the tournament are really, really close to zero percent. So next year's Champions League spots will go to the top four finishers this year.
•Three Europa League spots are also awarded to English teams: generally one for fifth place, one for the FA Cup winner, and one for the winner of the Capital One Cup, which Swansea City just won.
• It becomes complicated, however, when a Champions League-bound team wins the FA Cup. They'll take the Champions League spot, and the FA Cup runner-up will qualify for Europa. After tomorrow, second-place Manchester City and either likely champions Manchester United or fourth-place Chelsea will be through to the semifinals of the FA Cup.
• If City isn't matched up against the United/Chelsea winner in the semifinal game, the two will likely meet in the final. Let's say, then, that the two meet up in the final of the FA Cup, and both hold on to qualify for next years Champions League by finishing in the top four through Premier League play. Swansea as well as the fifth- and sixth-best teams in the Prem would head to the Europa League.
Back to Howard's broken bones. With ten games remaining, Everton currently sits in sixth place with 45 points, two points off Arsenal and seven points worse than Chelsea. But two clubs, West Brom and Liverpool, are within three points of them, vying for the all important sixth spot, and fifth if they can get it. Howard will miss next week's game at home to Manchester City, and likely Everton's game on the 30th against midtable Stoke City. Hopefully he's back after that, but he could even miss the April 7 game at third-place Tottenham. They're all must-win, easily losable games for Everton, who no longer has an FA Cup route to Europe.
What this means, then, is that Everton, which has a habit of fading near the end of the season anyway due to its thin bench, will likely lose to City, will have a tougher go against Stoke, and could possibly be worse off against a favored Tottenham. Tottenham and City wins will vault the clubs higher up the table out of harm's way. Even though Arsenal has a relatively weak schedule, it'll be more difficult for them to gain a Champions League berth with City and Tottenham wins. At the same time, Liverpool and West Brom, both in good form, would be right with Everton, and might even surpass them in the standings by the time Howard makes his comeback.
Even with a two-week international break, Howard could return to find the top of the Premier League table in absolute chaos, with everyone from second-place Manchester City to eighth-place Liverpool fighting for the fourth, fifth, and sixth spots.
It becomes even cloudier if City and United or Chelsea meet in the FA Cup semifinal, because it would mean that after today's Everton loss to Wigan, either Wigan, Milwall or Blackburn—the latter two of which aren't even in the Premier League—would be assured a spot in the final, an automatic FA Cup runner-up spot, and barring a catastrophic end to Manchester City's season, a berth in the Europa League. Sixth place in the Prem would no longer be good enough to compete in Europe.
Europa League competition has the potential to vault a small team like Swansea or an atrophying giant like Liverpool into the upper tier of the Premier League. Champions League qualification likely validates and solidifies a club's position as one of the best on the continent and in the world. Without a European berth, however, clubs have less revenue, less interest from players to join, and little hope for success the following season.
If you think we're saying that American Tim Howard is the center of the English soccer world right now, then you've followed along just fine. His injury has already thrown the country into absolute pandemonium with Everton's loss to Wigan, because terrible teams are now running amok in the FA Cup. The longer he's out, the worse shit is going to get. If you're a fan of anyone besides Manchester United or like Norwich, you should hide. Go now. Don't expect things to be OK.