It's hard not to love Tim Howard. On the field, the New Jersey-born goalkeeper is a tightly wound bundle of athletic intensity. Off it, he conveys the nobility and earnestness of a throwback gentleman-athlete.
In his seventh season at Goodison Park, Howard talks about Everton in a way others might characterize Howard himself, "This is such a hardworking, no-nonsense team, as blue-collar as it comes," he explains with a quiet pride. "Everyone respects us. Supporters of other clubs always tell me they cheer for Everton when their team is not playing."
Despite well-documented financial limitations, Everton has conjured up top-seven finishes in five of the past six Premier League seasons, a remarkable feat in an era that has seen the league table seemingly predetermined by budgetary muscle. Howard believes the secret of Everton's success lies in the unique bond that exists between the club and its players. "I can say this hand on heart: You will not find a more committed bunch of guys in Europe," he declares.
Howard arrived at Everton after a spell in MLS with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and some time at Manchester United, but the U.S. international is clear that Goodison Park feels different than anywhere he's played before. "There is no arrogance like at other clubs I have belonged to. Here, there are zero egos," he explains. "You simply won't find that anywhere else. We all really love playing for this team."
Goalkeepers are often portrayed as a breed apart, condemned to a lonely struggle understood only by NFL kickers or Albert Camus aficionados (a writer who, perhaps uncoincidentally, was quite a handy shot-stopper in his day). Yet when asked how he retains his personal motivation playing for a club who have no realistic chance of winning the Premier League, Howard sounds like the consummate team player.
"We get paid to do a job and that job is to fight as hard as we can," he asserts. "All of us are committed, both to each other and to the family nature of this club that we want to live up to. I have been to a few cup finals and I want to get back to that, particularly with Everton. Bringing a trophy back to the city and the club is my main goal. We don't lack for motivation."
But team spirit can only get you so far. Early-season optimism, caused by a swashbuckling opening-day victory against Manchester United and reinforced by the dismantling of Aston Villa, has burned off following a comprehensive defeat at West Bromwich and the frustration of Monday night's controversial 2-2 tie with Newcastle.
As such, Howard is realistic about what lies within the realm of possibility for his team. "We have a limited budget compared to everyone else so competing is tough, but I believe we can earn a Champions League place if we can put together a run like we did from Christmas to the end of last season," he says. "That is what we will deem a success, and our consistency will be key."
Consistency is a word that will still sting following Monday night's draw. Though two controversial refereeing decisions grabbed the headlines, Everton's display was erratic, intoxicating in the first half only to falter in the second. The loss of Nikica Jelavic's intelligent movement proved to be a game-changer. The Croatian striker is expected to be out for two weeks, joining midfield anchor Darron Gibson in the treatment room.
Howard was blunt when assessing the impact of their absence. "Injuries are a factor we cannot combat. Manchester City loses a star and can instantly replace him with another $40 million acquisition. When we lose a top player, we lose our power," he explained. "We have a first-team squad of about 15 players. We simply cannot take many more injuries."
The thin nature of Everton's squad is compounded by their status as a selling club, one forced to surrender its prized talents to rich Champions League contenders. Over the summer, Howard announced he would "cry" if Leighton Baines left the club. Transfer rumors still surround the coveted left back as well as Everton's mop-topped man-o-war, Marouane Fellaini, yet Howard remains optimistic when asked if they might depart. "I don’t think the manager will let that happen," he declared. "We lost Joleon Lescott, Mikel (Arteta), Timmy (Cahill) and (Jack) Rodwell but we are still kicking. The manager has shown he will dig his heels in so our players won't go for cheap. We will not struggle."
Howard is poised to play his 188th straight game when Everton plays Swansea City on Saturday, a record run for a player at a single club. Everton managed to do the double against the slick-passing Welsh side last season, yet Howard remains wary of the Swans' challenge. "They dominate possession whether they win or lose, which lulls you to sleep and creates gaps when a defender is not tuned in. As opposed to other teams where the danger men are clear, Swansea's threats come from all over the field, so I expect to spend the afternoon shouting even more than normal to make sure my guys pick up runners coming on the blindside."
Howard confessed that he'd had limited opportunity to analyze the free-scoring Michu's tendencies on game film, saying, "Faced with a new signing, you just have to go with what your instinct tells you."
The goalkeeper admits he sees a similarity between his club side and international team. "The United States is cut from the same cloth as Everton. We are both underdogs who punch above our weight by operating as a hard-working unit," he says, before identifying a key difference. "Everton has an easier time finding new talent as they can simply buy new skilled players. We Americans are all from the same mold -- hard-working runners. It is not a bad mold, but it means we do not always have the creativity we need."
Howard believes the team is making progress under Jurgen Klinsmann. "We were a very good team under Bob Bradley. The jump to the next level will be all about getting details right."
When asked whether the U.S. should still be struggling against the likes of Jamaica and Guatemala, Howard does not flinch. "That criticism is fair. We ask the same question as a squad," he says. "CONCACAF is a strange bird. You face teams at home and it is a walk in the park, but away from home they feel like a whole different proposition. I agree we need to do a better job of settling the score. On paper the results do not make sense, but look around the world and you will see that most teams find the pressures of World Cup qualification difficult."
The American No. 1 admits that the World Cup looms large. "As a kid I always dreamed of being a professional goalkeeper, and back then, that had nothing to do with the Premier League, which I had no idea existed. It simply meant representing the U.S. in the World Cup. I had a poster of the 1990 team on my bedroom wall and I wanted to do exactly what Tony Meola did." The power of the poster still holds for Howard. "I want to qualify for the next World Cup and make some noise. We need to better 2010's performance, when we were on the brink of the quarterfinals."
Howard admits a return to MLS is a possibility when his contract runs out at Everton in 2016. "I will be 37 years old then and I saw my friend Kasey Keller enjoy it and do well once he returned," he says, "but I will have to wait to see how I feel when my contract is over. Right now, MLS makes me smile and think of good days ahead."
Whatever he decides, the North Brunswick native is not worried about forgetting where he comes from. When asked if he is afraid of losing his American accent like the mid-Atlantic-brogued Brad Friedel, Howard chuckles. "Brad's accent is a put-on," he declares. "I will just stick to my roots."
Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN, and with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter: @rogbennett.