Tuesday, February 6, 2007
Tim Howard is perfect for Everton, and I don't mean that as a compliment.
As an Evertonian, I've been through more than my share of ups and downs. The ups are few and far between, but when they do happen, they're spectacular - like, for example, this season's 3-0 shellacking of across-the-park rivals and otherwise all-around bad guys Liverpool (not to mention Saturday's scoreless draw at Anfield) or 2004's fourth place and Champions League qualifying finish. Very proud moments for Royal Blue.
However, from experience, I know that these ups are usually just a precursor to the inevitable - disappointment, frustration and pure, unadulterated heartbreak.
That's why I say Tim Howard is perfect for Everton.
To be fair, I admit that anything short of a miraculous season from the former Manchester United #1 was going to be a disappointment. It's no secret that he had some huge boots to fill, replacing the retiring Nigel Martyn.
A perennial fan favorite and true great (even at age 40), Martyn was a large part of Everton's recent successes, particularly in 2004-05 when his shutout after shutout not only helped secure the 4th spot but also inspired every single member of the squad to up the ante.
Martyn's injuries the next season were felt not only in the goals allowed column, but also in the tenacity and confidence of the team itself. Richard Wright, Martyn's backup, shouldered much of the blame for Everton's disappointing 11th place finish and overall lackluster performances simply because he failed to command the respect of his defenders.
Obviously, one man does not make an entire team, but with manager David Moyes placing so much reliance on defense since he arrived at Goodison Park in 2002, a strong keeper has become all the more important. The kings of the 1-0 victories, the Merseysiders have shunned "attractive football" in the name of gritty, sometimes downright boring performances to snag three points.
With Martyn at the helm, it worked.
Fast forward to 2006. The arrivals of striker Andy Johnson from Crystal Palace and Howard were touted as the answers to Everton's two most pressing question marks - goal scoring and goalkeeping.
Personally, and perhaps it's just the Evertonian in me, I was skeptical. After all, Johnson was supposedly just a penalty scorer and Howard had yet to prove that he could handle the pressures of being a full-time #1 at a Premiership club, particularly after his fall from grace with United manager Sir Alex Ferguson a couple years ago.
At least, I was proven wrong about one of them.
Don't get me wrong, Howard is a country mile ahead of Everton's other option, Wright. But the American does have a ways to go to making himself indispensable.
There's no questioning that Howard is a remarkable athlete. He uses size and strength to his advantage when covering large areas of the goal and his reflexes are nothing short of fantastic. Some of the saves he's made this season have been awe-inspiring.
But those moments of greatness seem to be some sort of setup for a ridiculous letdown, a bumbled cross, a botched clearance, a poor distribution or a miscommunication with the defense. He will mar an otherwise good game with a soft goal. He will follow up a great performance with an unfathomable one or a great save with a blonde moment.
The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The story of Everton.
A club such as Everton has very specific needs, ones that can only be met by a very specific type of player. Unfortunately, there are very few players in the game today who fit the bill. Even more unfortunate is that Everton can afford none of them.
"Unwavering" and "rock" are two words that come to mind when I envision a Toffee keeper, given that their defense derives so much of its confidence from the man between the sticks. Right or wrong, that's just a fact. And given that Moyes has decided to stick to his defensive strategies, whether for reasons beyond or within his control, Howard's position becomes all the more critical.
The bottom line is that I don't think Howard is the right fit for Everton, nor Everton the right fit for Howard.
The 27-year old came to Mersey with his own agenda. After earning and then losing the starting position at Old Trafford, he needed to prove not only to his fans and critics, but also to himself that he's the real deal. Much has been made of his potential, but other than one season, little has been seen of it at the top level.
As much as it was a chance for him to get some playing time, the season-long loan was a huge opportunity for him to regain his confidence. The problem is that Everton's sometimes scatterbrained defense leaves the goalkeeper vulnerable to silly mistakes - something that does little to help Howard achieve his goal.
Furthermore, the Yank is at a point in his career where he has higher ambitions than only those at the club level. A regular, full-time spot for Howard carried with it the hopes that he might one day earn the starting spot not for the Royal Blue, but for the Red, White & Blue, and with good reason.
Kasey Keller's gone and the likes of Joe Cannon, Marcus Hahnemann and Matt Reis are too internationally inexperienced to take the responsibility. Howard seems like the obvious choice.
Many US fans thought that playing time alone would be enough to spur him into a comeback, of sorts. We kept repeating to ourselves, 'If he can just play regularly, we'll see the Timmy from 2003'. It became our mantra.
But it's becoming obvious that, by itself, 90 minutes a week is not going to solve some of the issues facing the goalkeeper. In order to secure his spot with the National Team, Howard needs to have a look at a few aspects of his game.
There's no other way to say this, except to just say it. Howard's handling of crosses is atrocious. Most of the time, I "watch" them with my eyes squeezed closed, breath held and teeth clenched. Surely there's a neighborhood kid willing to kick in crosses at the Yank if he can't swing the extra practice time with teammates and coaches. At this point, anything will do.
I've seen it a hundred times already this season. Howard makes a decision, often the right one, and then shirks away at the last minute. A half-hearted punch clearance does so much more damage than letting the opponent get a shot on - it not only frees up the mouth of goal, but usually puts the ball in a dangerous rebound position. Go for it, or wait for it, but don't do both.
He gives up way too many of them, especially when he could very easily use his strong, 6'3" frame to do what my hockey coach always pounded into our keeper's head - smother it.
Positioning the defense on set pieces
He should know that the fewer people directly in front of him, the better his view of the ball is going to be, not to mention the fact that positioning the defenders further away means that there will be fewer attackers in and around the mouth of the goal. Obvious, right?
This issue is of the utmost importance. Howard is a good keeper, with the potential to be a great one. If he of all people doesn't know that, it's certain we will never see him rise to the heights of his potential.
The good news is that South Africa is a ways off. By 2010, he will hopefully have four more years of regular playing time under his belt, four more years of experience and practice, four years to address his issues and set his ship right again.
The question is - what does Howard need to do to accomplish these goals? Returning to Manchester United at the end of the season and his loan spell is one option, although that would mean playing second fiddle to starter Edwin van der Sar, who just re-upped for another year at Old Trafford. Nope. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.
He could also earn a contract at Goodison, where he would surely keep his starting position. But that could also very well mean being stuck behind the same defenders week in and week out - the ones who already display signs of doubt in their new teammate, the ones who feel the need to overcompensate and who end up doing more harm than good. Again, nope.
Regaining confidence is not just an internal matter. If Howard is to fully recover from his past mistakes, he needs to be at a club where keeping shutouts is not just about the only hope of breaking into European competition - and even then, more or less a pipe dream. (Hush, Evertonians! You know I speak the truth, even if it is harsh.) He needs to be where giving up a goal a game is not going to mean the difference of getting lost in the middle of standings obscurity and a relegation battle.
No, what Howard needs is more offense.
My first reaction was to send him to Eindhoven. Why not? We already know they're Yank friendly and with more goals than points this season, PSV have made no secret about their goal-scoring abilities.
There have been rumors that current #1 Gomes is about to move on to bigger and better. Howard could do well to step in for the Brazilian, should he go, and use Gomes' own rise from "great reflex, but mistake prone" keeper to demigod extraordinaire as motivation to get himself back on track.
They're continually challenging for the Eredivisie title (and indeed have claimed it the past two years) and are regular competitors in Europe. Sure, the Eredivisie doesn't have quite the same ring to it as the Premiership, but Howard would most certainly see a more diverse set of players in Eindhoven than in Liverpool, if for no other reason than Champions League qualifiers alone.
And then one of my YA colleagues mentioned Fulham to me. I immediately said "no", but then got to thinking about it. They are certainly more offensive than Everton, with guys like Brian McBride, Vincenzo Montella and Tomasz Radzinski leading the way.
Granted, the former Italy international isn't expected to remain at Craven Cottage beyond his loan spell, but I think manager Chris Coleman is on the right track to building a solid team. New signings Alexei Smertin and Clint Dempsey will do well to round out the midfield, and they can look forward to the development of Wayne Routledge.
True, they're not exactly heading to Europe this season, but I think it just might be a place where Howard could settle in and get to work. He wouldn't have the pressures that come from having the success of the team rest upon his shoulders. He would have the fiery Coleman to light a match under him (instead of the oft-negative Moyes). This rebuilding phase at Fulham could be just what the keeper needs to concentrate on his own game and bring it to the next level.
Because that's what this is all about - finding the right fit to get Tim where he's going to need to be when we need him to be at his best. This isn't just a fan spouting off about a keeper she doesn't like.
Just the opposite, in fact. I like Howard (but then again, I do have a thing for bald guys whose ears stick out). I want him to do well. I just don't see that happening in his current situation.