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Howard a convenient scapegoat

Tim Howard could see the headlines before he even made it off the Old Trafford pitch on Wednesday. "Howard's Howler" or "Dim Howard" would be on the newsstands by morning after Damian Duff's freakish free kick bounced past Manchester United's defense and by Howard in the Carling Cup semifinal. Anyone with a soccer brain could see that Howard did what he was supposed to on the play, but there would be headlines to write and papers to sell anyway, all with Howard wearing the goat horns yet again.

"I knew right when that game was over that it was a perfect story and people wouldn't look at it objectively," said Howard on Thursday, a day after the controversial goal. "I did some good things in that game to help the team and my team knows what happened on that play but that's not how things work over here.

"What's funny is that a paper will kill me on the back page but then inside there'll be a story about how it wasn't my fault," said Howard. "I'm not going to let that stuff bother me though because you learn pretty quickly that it's just the nature of the beast."

The goal in question came when Duff sent a 45-yard free kick from the right flank toward Howard's back-post. The ball came in so hard and fast that neither attackers or defenders could make a play for it. Instead, it bounced past them all and tucked inside the left-post as a helpless Howard could only watch, still waiting for a header that never came.

"You have to give credit where credit is due. Damian Duff played in a killer ball," said Howard. "When you have a ball out wide, played in the area, that's exactly the kind of ball you want played in. The defense could have done something different and I could have done something different but I can't just go bounding for the top corner, you have to hold, wait and see if anyone gets a piece on it. Looking at it, I try to look at it with an open mind. I just don't see where I can go for that ball."

Howard's manager, Alex Ferguson, agreed, even after the British press ripped into the American goalkeeper.

"The defenders should have cleared it, there is no doubt in my mind about that," said Ferguson of Duff's goal. "The way the ball is whipped in at pace from that kind of angle, there's no way the goalkeeper can come for it. Think about it. There was Ferdinand, Heinze, Terry, Gallas, Silvestre and Tiago all bearing down. If someone had got a touch, (Howard) would have been knackered. One of the defenders should have headed it clear."

The controversial goal came just as talk of Manchester United acquiring a new goalkeeper during the winter transfer window had finally died down. Replaced as the team's regular starter by Roy Carroll after two early-season miscues, Howard has still managed to play 20 games for Manchester United. He has shown good form in recent weeks but still hasn't been able to avoid criticism in the press that seems to be heavier for him than for goalkeepers in England who make similar or worse mistakes.

Whether it's just a case of people wanting to target Manchester United, or if the British media are simply stoking the Iraq War-aided anti-American sentiment in England by offering Howard up as a sacrificial lamb, Howard is facing criticism like no other player in England. He insists that he won't let it get to him.

"I'm trying to be steady," said Howard. "I'm working hard and am getting my chances. It's not like I'm not playing games. I'll just keep working and let critics do what they do. All the talk doesn't affect my game. I'm more disappointed that we didn't get to the final than about anything that anyone could say or write."

MetroStars Stadium keeps hitting snags

Can someone please get Tony Soprano on the phone? It seems as if the fictional mobster is the only person capable of getting a MetroStars Stadium built in New Jersey without having to deal with the bureaucratic snags that have kept the Metros waiting six years for any real progress on a new home.

The latest has been word that some N.J. officials want assurances that Major League Soccer won't go bankrupt, thus leaving the state and town of Harrison on the hook for a considerable chunk of change. If it were 2002, when the league contracted two teams and looked shaky, and not 2005, when the team has just expanded by two teams and secured a $150 million investment from adidas, the concern would be understandable. As it stands now, the posturing leads some believe that MetroStars may never secure the support for their own home.

So why do the Metros keep bashing their heads against the wall that is New Jersey poli-tricks? They do it because the only other alternative is leaving the state, something the franchise doesn't want to do but does have in their contingency plan as a worst-case scenario. The MLS business plan only works when all its teams have their own stadiums and not even the Metros, who have enjoyed a thriving success on the corporate sponsorship front, could continue to exist without the revenue streams a stadium would provide.

Perhaps the most absurd revelation of the past week has come in the wake of soccer promoter ChampionsWorld's bankruptcy. Opponents of the Metros stadium project have privately, and in some cases publicly, tried to offer up ChampionsWorld's demise as evidence for why building a Metros stadium is too risky. In their eyes, soccer just can't work and the bankruptcy is evidence of that. The theory is absurd and just another example of the deceptive tactics the Metros have had to deal with since they began their quest for a stadium.

One familiar voice of opposition chimed in this week. George Zoffinger, head of the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority, told the Bergen Record regarding ChampionsWorld's demise, "Really what this does is it points to the growing pains that soccer is going to have in the United States."

Really George? Growing pains? You mean like the growing pains that led Frisco, Texas to provide most of the funding for a new soccer facility that included a stadium for MLS club FC Dallas? Or the growing pains in Chicago, where the town of Bridgeview recently approved and broke ground on a stadium for the Chicago Fire? Or perhaps you're talking about the growing pains felt in Salt Lake City, where the town is buzzing over its new franchise, and already talking about building a stadium. Maybe it's the ever-growing list of potential investors clamoring to join the league via expansion.

You want growing pains? How about the growing pains felt by the MetroStars fan base, which takes as much of a hit from people not wanting to come to the hell hole that is Giants Stadium as it does from having a team that underachieves yearly.

What's funny about Zoffinger commenting on ChampionsWorld's failure is that he was a major player in the company's bold movements and inevitable demise. It was Zoffinger who helped get the NJSEA out of its contract with the MetroStars that gave the Metros exclusive rights to host games at Giants Stadium. That move cleared the way for ChampionsWorld to get its ball rolling. It was Zoffinger who told area media that hosting games featuring high-profile foreign teams would be far more lucrative and successful than MLS. That idea may not have even sounded too crazy three years ago, when MLS had just contracted, but there were still plenty of critics who saw the idea as shaky at best.

Now, Zoffinger conveniently steps away from the ChampionsWorld mess, offering up an "I told you so" as if no one would remember his part in the mess. If only people like Zoffinger, who have no use for soccer unless it involves satisfying their own selfish needs, would just shut their mouths, and leave the business of soccer to people who have a clue about the sport. Perhaps when that happens, the Metros will start to see some real progress and nobody will have to call Tony Soprano to get involved.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (NJ). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com