Tim Howard made his international debut on March 10, 2002. With the World Cup three months away and two veteran goalkeepers in Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller on the team, nobody cared too much at the time. As talented and promising as Howard may have been, any discussion about United States goalkeepers turned back to one question -- would Friedel or Keller start at the World Cup?
12 years later, the mere idea of there being a battle to be the Americans' starting goalkeeper at the World Cup seems crazy. It's Howard's job, just like it was four years ago.
And when Howard goes to Brazil, he will do so with 100 caps.
Howard has 99 caps, one short of the magical century mark, but that will change Saturday. When Howard steps on the pitch at Everbank Field, he will earn his 100th cap, joining a group of only 14 other Americans.
It may be easier to play later into your career when you're a goalkeeper -- Howard is 35 years old, three years older than any other field player on the World Cup roster -- but there is also only one spot. There can only be one goalkeeper on the pitch and he is rarely substituted. To be a goalkeeper at the international level, you have to be the very best your country has to offer, not in the top four, or top six or even top 10 -- the best.
For eight years, Howard has been that.
As soon as Keller stepped aside after the 2006 World Cup, Howard has been the starting goalkeeper for the U.S. He's played in World Cups and friendlies, Gold Cups and qualifiers. It didn't matter how important or unimportant a match was, when he got the call he showed up and spent 90 minutes in between the sticks.
Some of the Americans' most memorable moments have been because of Howard. Whether it was his amazing performance in the rain against Lionel Messi and Argentina to earn the U.S. a draw, or his slew of tremendous stops to keep a clean sheet against Spain in the Confederations Cup, or his pass to start the play that would lead to Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, Howard has been at the center of everything.
The U.S. has never been a team that dominates opponents, at least not good ones. Even now, with Jurgen Klinsmann trying to instill a more proactive approach, they still spend time on the back foot, trying to preserve clean sheets or just hanging on for dear life. Few good teams in the world ask as much of their goalkeeper as the U.S. does, and Howard delivers time and time again.
Howard has been one of the only constants for the U.S. He and Clint Dempsey were the only sure-fire starters at the beginning of 2007 that are still that today. Even Michael Bradley took a few more months before he stamped out his place in the middle of the park like Howard did in goal.
It wasn't always easy for Howard either. The goalkeeper saw all of the constants in front of him -- Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra -- decline before being dropped from the national team. He's been charged with commanding a brand new defense, one riddled by inexperience and constant change, but he's done it.
Even when Howard struggled, he kept the starting spot. Brad Guzan was in remarkable form and Howard was having one of the worst seasons of his life in 2012-13, but Howard never relinquished his spot in between the pipes. Klinsmann believed he would turn it around -- which he did with a great campaign last year -- but more than anything, he valued the leadership Howard brought. He valued it enough that Howard wore the armband upon occasion. And he valued it for good reason.
For a team in transition, as the U.S. has been for the last three years, leadership is paramount, and Howard has provided just that. He's been their backbone and their fireman too, saving them when it looks like all will burn down.
It's been 12 years and 100 caps with a World Cup, and maybe more, to come.
Thank you, Tim Howard.