MLS Soccer Goalkeeper Tim Howard in front of the goal. Photograph by Brad Smith

MLS Soccer Goalkeeper Tim Howard

U.S. Goalkeeper Gets Ready for World Cup Soccer: Superstar Tim Howard

Written by Henry Ortlip

When it comes to protecting the goal, Tim Howard is one of the world’s best. Not only does he play professional soccer in England, he is also the starting goalkeeper for the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team. Having begun his career in Major League Soccer [MLS] with the New York MetroStars, Howard has spent a decade overseas with both Manchester United and his current club Everton. He’s looking forward to taking the U.S. team to Brazil in June for the World Cup with hopes to top the team’s performance from their South Africa trip to the 2010 World Cup. From navigating pitfalls to the jersey God is wearing, Risen talked with this gifted athlete about his “football” and faith.

Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine at Worsley Park in Manchester, England

Risen Magazine: What was your home life and family like growing up?
Tim Howard: My parents were divorced when I was three, so I have no recollection of their marriage. I had a very positive balance of my mom, my dad, and both sets of grandparents. Until I was fourteen years old I grew up with my great-grandmother being alive. I realize now as I get older how special that is to have my great-grandparents in my life. Home life was relatively normal. My mom was a single mom; she worked two jobs to just kind of make ends meet. Because of her hard work, she made it very easy for my brother and me to enjoy our childhood.

MLS Soccer Goalkeeper Tim Howard stretching out to save a goal. Photograph by Jose L. Argueta

MLS Soccer Goalkeeper Tim Howard stretching out to save a goal. Photograph by Jose L. Argueta

Risen Magazine: When was the moment or definitive time that soccer became your greatest goal?
Tim Howard: At the time I maybe didn’t know it was passion, but I had that love for soccer. I remember being seven or eight years old, waking up, putting on my shin guards and my uniform and then later when the game got rained out, I was crying because I wanted to play. Not realizing that in five days there would be another game, but five days to a kid is like an eternity. I had that love for it. I think I was in the sixth grade and I was asked to write a short story. I remember writing and saying I wanted to go the Olympics and be a professional soccer player. That was a pretty young age, but that was what mattered most to me at that time.

Risen Magazine: Who has been the most influential person to your career?
Tim Howard: I have been very fortunate. Anytime you can class your career as being a success, you have had some people help you out along the way. Growing up, my goalkeeping mentor was a guy by the name of Tim Mulqueen. He is a Jersey guy and he was my first goalkeeper coach, the first guy to introduce me to goalkeeping. He went on to be the goalkeeper coach of the [New York] Metrostars, who drafted me in 1998. He then went on to Kansas City and won the title with the Kansas City Wizards. He coached with a plethora of the national teams, under-17s, under-20s, the Olympic team in Beijing, and he had a couple of stints with the full national team. Now he is, among other things, co-director of my goalkeeper academy. He is a guy who started off being my goalkeeper coach, a best friend, a confidant, and to someone who I [now] call a brother. Our lives are very paralleled and I’m with him all the time.

  …I ask for calmness and humility. That has always been my biggest prayer.

Risen Magazine: What role has faith played in your life?
Tim Howard: Huge. I didn’t grow up going to church and I didn’t grow up being a believer [spiritually]. But I’m obviously a believer [now]. That started at a young age, I had some very positive influences in my family. My grandmother, who unfortunately just recently passed away, was an amazing woman of Christ. She was always in church on Sunday. She was from the South, so she would get dressed up in a big fancy hat, in her Sunday best and she always looked so beautiful. That was her moment. She had been through it all, raising a family and working hard. It was from her that I learned that joy can only come through your personal relationship with God. Though I didn’t go to church as a kid, I always had that influence in my grandmother; I saw her all the time. As I got older and I was able to make my own decisions consciously and was able to think through the process, she was always in the forefront of my mind.

Risen Magazine: How does your relationship with God affect the way you play soccer?
Tim Howard: [Laughing] That was kind of the topic of a funny conversation we recently had in a team chapel. It doesn’t affect the way I physically go out and perform. I certainly ask the Lord for things in prayer before the game. Most of the time, if not all the time, it’s for the ability to perform to my standards. That may be in a win or a loss, but to play well, injury free, and to do things in the right way. In competition and in sports, sometimes emotions take over and you may lose your focus a little. It’s important to have intent going into a game and to play for the glory of God. With so much going on around you in competition, it’s hard over the course of 90 minutes, to be having a conversation with God in the midst of it all. That’s one of the things we talked about, it’s important to have a godly heart, to speak to God before the game and maybe even during the game, but it’s very difficult.
The funny part about all that was we played Mexico to qualify for the World Cup. And one of my archrivals is Chicarito, [Mexican star forward, Manchester United] who I think is an amazing player. I love playing against him. I love trying to pit our wheels against each other. He prays before the game, and I pray before the game. He was over on the other side of the field praying and I was praying, and I just thought, “Boy, God’s got a lot on his plate right now.” I know what he is praying for, and I know what I am praying for – we will see. It was an interesting thought to be thinking about just two seconds before the whistle blew. It just goes to show that we are praying to the same God and it’s about Him. I thought that was a pretty cool illustration. We know what jersey God was wearing that night based on the result. [Laughing] (The U.S. Team beat Mexico 2-0 during that game played in Columbus, Ohio.)

MLS Soccer Goalkeeper Tim Howard. Photograph by Henry Orltip

MLS Soccer Goalkeeper Tim Howard. Photograph by Henry Orltip

Risen Magazine: As a player what has been the greatest challenge to your faith?
Tim Howard: I think with athletes and sports in general, there is so much that goes on inside and outside the lines; lots of challenges and lots of pitfalls. Some of those pitfalls aren’t packaged in a negative way; they are packaged in a very glossy, glamorous, positive way, whether it is money, fame, or ego. I think that has been the biggest challenge for me. From day one, having faith in a profession like mine has always been my focus. Here is one of the main reasons, as an athlete why I need to have faith. Yes, you want to play well and stay injury free, those are all things I ask for and pray for. But I ask for calmness and humility. That has always been my biggest prayer. My conversations with God have always been in the midst of all the ups and downs, to just keep me level. I’m not so concerned about being super high, but don’t let me get super low either. In fairness, God has answered those prayers. I have never had things too high where I lose myself, and God hasn’t allowed things to get so low that I can’t persevere through it.

Risen Magazine: With pitfalls always around you, how do you navigate through those waters?
Tim Howard: I do stumble and fall at times, and there are lessons to be learned. I think as I have gotten older, my experience and my faith have grown. I have learned to see certain situations coming. When a pitfall comes, I lean on my faith and I get back into prayer. I try and be still and understand that the Lord is working. It’s not always an easy thing, especially being competitive by nature, I want to grab the bull by the horns and figure things out for myself. In those moments, I think that’s when it is important to get back and fall in line. Don’t try and lead the pack, but get behind God and let Him steer the ship.

Risen Magazine: What has been the most important thing you have learned in your career?
Tim Howard: The most important thing without question has been learning the value of hard work. I had an understanding of what hard work was going into my career, but it has since been hammered home. I think the lesson I have learned in the last 16 years as a professional is that it is important to go to work every day and bring your best. I don’t think you can ever go wrong. Don’t take any short cuts; do your ultimate best. If all you have on a particular day is 70 percent, then give 70 percent. Hard work every day leads to good things. I think that’s important. I learned a valuable lesson coming back to work in preseason. I was in Memphis and I didn’t want to leave home and the sunshine. I got a taxi to the airport and got talking to this fella, a real nice guy. He asked me where I was going, I said, “Ah man, I’m going back to work. I’m tired and I want to have some more time off.” I gave him a tip and he said, “Never underestimate the value of hard work.” That stuck with me. I get to live this glamorous life, which people only dream of, and he has been slugging it away everyday, driving in a hot taxi. It was valuable words.

You start getting into those knock-out stages and that’s the second round of quarterfinals, and then you’re creeping into the semifinals and that’s when magic happens.

Risen Magazine: Where’s your favorite place to play soccer?
Tim Howard: Gosh, that’s a tough one. I’ve played in a lot of really cool places. I think for me, and this will be a surprise to a lot of people, it is to play in the Azteca stadium in Mexico City. For a couple reasons: it’s iconic in every sense of the word, and it’s one of the only places I’ve ever played that lives up to the hype. The tunnels underneath the stadium are dark and cold, then you get out into the air and there’s smog. It’s hot and there are a hundred thousand people [lining the stands] that go straight up. It’s daunting and it’s scary. It’s all the things you could possibly imagine. A lot of the time you go to the places and think, “Oh, this is nothing.” But Mexico City, that has something about it. As an American player, with Mexico being our archrival, I remember about a-year-and-a-half ago when we went there and we were the first [U.S.] team to win there. It was special; it’s always a really cool environment. One day I want to go back to Mexico City when I finish playing, wearing a disguise, and I want to watch the U.S. versus Mexico game in the stadium amongst the supporters.

Risen Magazine: You’ve lived in England for almost a decade. How would you contrast life in the U.K. to life in the U.S?
Tim Howard: It’s a lot less sunny. [Laughs] I think being a soccer player in England is like living in a fishbowl. There’s a lot of publicity that surrounds soccer in England. There’s a lot of personal scrutiny that comes upon the players. So, that part is difficult and you have to adapt your lifestyle to that. When I was playing for the New York MetroStars before I came to England, I could go anywhere and I could do anything pretty much under the radar. Now I can’t. A lot of people have a problem finding their way in that. It took me a little while, but it didn’t take too long. I figured out how I fit into that mold and what life looked like, and how it was going to be. It takes an adjustment. Being recognized, being under the microscope, that’s not an easy thing. I’ve been here a decade; I’ve had plenty of time to adjust.

Risen Magazine: What would you say excites you the most about going to the World Cup in Brazil?
Tim Howard: I think just going to a World Cup means everything to our country and our fans, but to be a player, that’s the ultimate goal. You want to play for your National Team; but to go to the World Cup, that’s everything. It doesn’t get better than that. I think to be able to go to Brazil, which is one of the world’s powerhouses, is going to be special because we know what type of country and culture Brazil is. They enjoy their football, and they enjoy their life. One thing for me that is very special about this World Cup, which soccer fans should know, is that to be able to go to a World Cup in a country where their team has the possibility of actually winning it all, well, the anticipation is going to be amazing. France won the World Cup in France, but I’m not sure that they were the team to beat, if that makes sense. But going into this World Cup, knowing that Brazil has every chance in the world to win it is going to be a special moment for that country and for everyone involved.

Risen Magazine: It’s an important time for U.S. soccer and the team has known quite a lot of success. Why do you think the team has turned the corner and become so successful?
Tim Howard: I think this current crop of players is a really good mix. I think we’ve got a lot of young guys, this team is pretty young overall, but we also sprinkled in some strong veteran leadership who have been in Europe at the highest level. That balance on this current team is very good. We have a manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, who has been there, done that, and seen it all. He’s won everything – lifted the World Cup trophy as a player, been captain to his country, played for the biggest clubs in the world, coached Germany to a third place finish in the World Cup – so when you have a leader like that mixed with this group of players, that excites me. We’ve started to really find our niche and how we want to play. It’s been a good thing for U.S. soccer as a whole and I think we can get even better. I’m happy we’ve qualified for the World Cup. That gives us time to retool some things and to get better in a lot of areas. Hopefully, we will be a tough nut to crack for a lot of the teams down there [in Brazil]. By no means are we the favorite, but I know the opponents we’ve drawn [to play against] are not looking forward to us.

Risen Magazine: Okay, imagine you’re getting back on the plane after just finishing two months in Brazil at the World Cup. For that to be a pleasant and enjoyable ten-hour ride home, what was accomplished leading up to the plane ride?
Tim Howard: I think the warrior spirit in all of us would say that if the trophy is not on the plane with us, then I don’t think it will be nearly as enjoyable. I’ve been on a few of those journeys where it’s inevitably a long flight, because there’s disappointment. I think any time you enter a tournament or a game and you’ve worked so hard, you have so many expectations and your emotions are running high, it’s never easy to lose. I think our best finish was in 2002. We lost in the quarterfinal round. I think for a country like ours to get back to the quarterfinals and win, is important. If we’re talking about this team maybe being one of our best [ever], well then we have to raise the bar. And the bar has been set at the quarterfinals stage. I do also believe to answer your question, once you start to creep up and get through the quarterfinal phase, then anything is possible. You still have a long way to go and you have to win a semi, and ultimately win the trophy. But you start getting into those knock-out stages and that’s the second round of quarterfinals, and then you’re creeping into the semifinals and that’s when magic happens. I think it will be a long journey regardless of what happens, but we certainly like our chances.

Risen Magazine: What advice would you have for young players who want to become professionals?
Tim Howard: I think the company line would be, “Have fun,” because it’s important as a kid to enjoy soccer. I don’t think as a nine or ten year old you want to be going into your games the way I do, because I’m focused and driven, and it’s not easy at this stage. I think when you’re a kid you need to not only enjoy it, but take it a step further and really give everything you have. Be passionate about the sport you love. I think you’re in a developmental phase when you’re a kid. It’s important to learn and I think it’s important to fail too. I have no doubt, and I say it all the time, you learn pretty much everything from your failures. When you succeed, you don’t think. We try to tell the kids a lot, when you’re winning, when you’re succeeding, when you’re scoring goals, when you’re saving goals, you’re not thinking – that’s instinctual. When you fail, that’s when you have to think about how you failed and how not to do it again. That’s when the learning begins and I think it’s important to learn. It’s important to be passionate about your sport, try as hard as you can, work hard, and try to enjoy it.

Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Spring 2014