Tim Howard's move to Colorado is the next stage in his excellent career
Tim Howard's European adventure is coming to a close after almost 13 years, with the goalkeeper set to return to the league that catapulted him to some of his greatest professional moments.
Howard will join the Colorado Rapids this summer after completing the English Premier League season with Everton and has signed a three-and-a-half year deal that will pay him between $2.5-2.8 million per year. The Rapids paid a nominal transfer fee of around $600,000 for his services.
So what drove Howard to call time on his European sojourn? As so often happens in these situations, family was a primary driver.
His children live in Memphis, Tennessee, with their mother. Howard has been visiting during the season whenever possible. Those trips, which had the blessing of Everton manager Roberto Martinez and before him, David Moyes, often involved Howard spending just one day with his children before flying back to England. It was that situation that compelled Howard to take a one-year hiatus from the U.S. national team after the 2014 World Cup.
Now the opportunities for family time will be significantly greater, but the soccer aspect weighs heavy as well. Howard, 37, has seen his form for Everton become more uneven since the 2014 World Cup, when he dazzled with a 15-save performance in a 2-1 round-of-16 defeat to Belgium.
MLS has periodically gauged his interest in "coming home" since then but sources with direct knowledge of the deal said talks between Howard and the league became more serious in late December of 2015. Howard informed Martinez and Everton chairman Bill Kenwright of his intentions the following month, which then played a significant role in Martinez handing Joel Robles the starting goalkeeper spot.
Once his responsibilities with Everton end and the summer transfer window opens in July, Howard can get something of a fresh start without being in the Premier League fishbowl. At the same time, he'll be available to help the U.S. qualify for another World Cup without the travel demands typical of overseas players.
"I know everybody freaks out if you say it, but there's definitely less pressure," said ESPN FC television analyst and former U.S. international Kasey Keller, who made his own move to MLS from Europe in 2009. "You're just able to have a fun experience to finish your career. Howard started in MLS (with the MetroStars) and he'll finish in MLS. That's kind of a cool end to it."
In a salary cap league where value is scrutinized heavily, there are questions as to how sensible it is to pay a multi-million-dollar contract for a goalkeeper. Colorado finished tied for sixth in the league in goals allowed last season -- 43 -- so defense wasn't exactly a pain point. The attack was, though the Rapids have attempted to address that need with the acquisition of Shkelzen Gashi. But Howard's contributions will include those of the more subtle variety, especially in terms of organization that will prevent shots from even being taken.
"Personally, I completely understand the move from both sides," said ESPN FC television analyst and former U.S. international Brian McBride, who also played in MLS either side of a long spell in Europe. "I think Colorado is in need of a lot of stability and some leadership. Timmy certainly provides that and more.
"I know some people question using a DP at the goalkeeping position. I think it's actually one of the more important positions on the field, especially in MLS. Chances come few and far between, and if a keeper is going to make at least one or two saves that someone else might not make, I totally understand it."
Keller adds that with Howard's former international teammate Pablo Mastroeni still trying to find his feet as a manager, the veteran's voice in the locker room is another plus.
"Colorado is a very young team and you have a young coach that could really benefit from having a strong ally like Howard helping to organize, making demands on young players to get themselves in the right positions," Keller said. "It's almost like he'll be an assistant coach on the field, and that could make a big, big difference for that team. Really what it comes down to is -- and it's the same with everybody that comes over -- if the attitude is right, and you're not hiding some sort of injury that nobody knows about, there's no question that he'll be very successful."
The bigger, financial picture has to be looked at as well. It's no accident that the Rapids announced a three-year extension of its shirt sponsorship agreement with Transamerica shortly before Howard's deal was announced. Plus, there is also Colorado's challenge of trying to carve out a place for itself in the crowded Denver sports marketplace and Howard's name recognition should at least help boost the team's profile.
Is there a possibility that the Howard deal won't deliver? Of course. But Colorado, long derided as a team reluctant to spend money, is at least showing some ambition. And it's worth noting that the hit on the salary cap this season will be a more than manageable $228,750. Yes, that will more than double in future years but the league-wide infusion of Targeted Allocation Money should allow Colorado to continue to add to its roster, and the club recently moved to acquire U.S. international midfielder Jermaine Jones.
While the switch doesn't spell the end of Howard's career, it marks the end of a chapter and, the duration of his career overseas is becoming increasingly rare among American players. MLS has been more willing to open up the purse strings and lure back overseas players who are closer to their prime, like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.
Howard not only spent the bulk of his career in Europe but played for one massive club in Manchester United, with which he won three medals in various cup competitions, and another -- Everton -- that possessed considerable pedigree and history.
While Howard's relationship with Everton fans was strained toward the end of his time at Goodison Park, he made more than 400 appearances, good for 13th on the club's all-time list. Then there are his 106 caps with the U.S. and the three World Cup squads of which he was a part. At this point, a fourth trip is likely.
"Not a lot of American players have been able to put those kind of numbers up in Europe," said Keller. "It's been a fantastic progression from the goalkeeping standpoint. He's been so strong and really helped establish and legitimize [U.S. soccer]. Tim was the next phase of that, and he did it remarkably well."
Now it's time for Howard to move onto the next phase of his career.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.