For the sake of narrative, every country needs a leading character. Some are obvious, like Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo or Uruguay's Luis Suárez, while others burst onto the scene like Colombia's James Rodríguez. In the case of the U.S., that character has been there all along—even if he was temporarily taken a bit for granted.
Entering the tournament, fans and pundits handed Michael Bradley the tag of the nation's top player. The U.S., they said, would go as far as Bradley could carry them. But after three games, it's looking more and more like America's standout man was positioned between the posts. Throughout the group stage, Tim Howard's play backed up his ownership of the number one jersey and rivaled Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey for overall quality within the American team. The 35-year-old sits near the top of the goalkeeping charts with 12 saves and just four goals conceded, and many of his best stops have come in key moments.
There's the first half against Portugal, when, after misjudging Nani's fifth-minute opener, Howard watched another strike from the winger clang off the post, then regained his balance to miraculously tip Eder's follow-up over the bar. Against Ghana, he produced a brilliant first-half stop on Asamoah Gyan to preserve the Americans' 1-0 lead, and ultimately, his much-needed stability amid the Black Stars' pressure helped the U.S. snatch a 2-1 victory. And finally, in a losing effort to Germany, Howard produced several close-range saves in slippery conditions and displayed a familiar quickness off his line. Some say he could have avoided parrying a rebound directly to Thomas Müller for the Germans' lone goal, but he deserves credit for the initial stop.
In addition to helping carry the U.S. into the knockout stages, Howard's strong play of late has also appeared to silence his critics. Remember, it was only a year ago when he fractured two ribs during World Cup qualifiers, prompting some to call for talented backup Brad Guzan to retain the starting role for good. Instead, the Everton man played well in the run-up to Brazil, remaining a consistent figure among an ever-shifting lineup.
Since taking over as the USMNT's top keeper in 2007, that consistency has allowed Howard to thrive under pressure. Much like his showings in Brazil, the goalkeeper delivered on the big stage in 2010 as his solid displays helped the U.S. reach the Round of 16. Against England, Howard kept the Americans level while counterpart Rob Green floundered, and he delivered another solid display against Slovenia. He was also at the center of the U.S.'s memorable victory over Algeria, keeping a clean sheet and starting the buildup which led to that Landon Donovan winner.
Come kickoff against Belgium, Howard will have to rely on all of his big-game experience to get the U.S. past the Round of 16. Still, you know what you're getting from the reliable veteran after years of confident goalkeeping.
And, yes, the Americans will need their keeper to play well if they have any hope of appearing in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002. It's not a cliché. Rather, it's a necessary expectation for one of the nation's top players, if not the top player. So far, Howard has carried the American torch like a leading man.
Dan Stelly is a contributor to Howler. Follow him on Twitter, @D_Stelly.
Illustration by Devin Dulany.