Last week, the balloting closed for the Honda Player of the Year award, given to the best U.S. national team player for the calendar year. While choosing a winner has been tough in recent years, voters shouldn't need much time deciding who to vote for in 2008.
In the race to be considered the best player in the U.S. national team pool, goalkeeper Tim Howard has pulled a Usain Bolt, pulling away from the pack with a lengthy run of memorable performances that has left no doubt about who the best and most important player on the U.S. national team has been in 2008.
Clint Dempsey has scored his share of goals, and both Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu have re-established themselves as rocks in the back line, but none of them can compete with Howard's 2008 season, which is why he should become only the second goalkeeper to win the Honda Player of the Year Award (Kasey Keller won in 1999 and 2005).
There are the stats, such as Howard's five shutouts in eight matches, and the individual saves, such as the ones that helped salvage 1-0 victories in recent World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala and Cuba. There is also the unforgettable performance he delivered against Argentina on June 8, making seven highlight-reel-caliber saves to help the Americans post a 0-0 tie against the No. 1 team in the world.
As important as all that is to Howard's claim to national team player of the year honors, perhaps the best evidence in Howard's favor is his growing status as one of the national team's unquestioned leaders. The 29-year-old veteran has spent the past five years plying his trade in the English Premier League, playing in important matches and gaining invaluable experience unmatched by any other current national team player. That experience has molded Howard into a player who can not only handle the pressure of big matches, but who also instills confidence in the players around him.
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"It's important that the team understands how we're improving and understands how to play in bigger games," U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley said. "I think the key has been some of the experienced guys. Timmy has played a very big role in terms of making sure that guys understand a little bit about what these tougher games are like."
'We've had some important players retire and now it's up to the veterans on the team; up to guys like DaMarcus [Beasley] and Landon [Donovan], who have been here for a while, and people like myself, Carlos [Bocanegra] and [Oguchi Onyewu], to be leaders on this team," said Howard. "We've got some good young players coming up, and you want to lead by example and show them what it means to be a professional and how important it is play for the national team."
A star for English club Everton, Howard has had to grow up quickly in the fast-paced world of European soccer since leaving MLS and signing with Manchester United in the summer of 2003. Two seasons as Everton's starter, which followed three seasons at Manchester United, have allowed Howard's game to mature and his reputation to grow from an athletically gifted netminder to an all-around talent who is arguably one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
"You can see how much he has grown in the past few years," U.S. national team midfielder Pablo Mastroeni said of Howard. "The way he leads a team, and talks to his defenders, and makes all the saves you need him to make. He has a confidence that teammates can feed off of."
You could argue that Howard deserved player of the year honors in 2007 (he finished second to Landon Donovan), especially after his performance in the Gold Cup final against Mexico, but this year Howard has removed all doubt. His play this summer has been especially sharp, with the Argentina match serving as Exhibit A in his case for the honor.
"In certain moments, when things aren't really going well for you, you hope that your goalkeeper can make a few saves, and Timmy went above and beyond that tonight," Donovan said of Howard on the night of the Argentina match. "We can't rely on that all the time because that's not fair on him, but you hope in certain moments he can make those types of plays. He's shown that he can rise to that level over and over again."
Howard has maintained a high level all year, which is part of the reason the U.S. national team has posted three shutouts to start the second round of World Cup qualifying. He still makes the acrobatic saves that became his trademark as a young standout for the MetroStars, but Howard's presence in the penalty area and ability to read dangerous situations have helped turn the U.S. defense into a better and more reliable group than it was a year ago.
As outstanding as Howard has been for the national team this year, next year will be an even more important one for him and the United States. 2009 will mark his first foray into the CONCACAF Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying as the U.S. team's unquestioned starter, and will also feature the Confederations Cup (a tournament in which Howard started for the U.S. in 2003). If Howard's 2008 performances are any indication, the U.S. national team will be in safe hands in 2009.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the (N.J.) Herald News and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.