Commentary

Howard's got his mojo back

Updated: September 13, 2010, 12:29 PM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to ESPN.com

It's too bad that Manchester United's emo manager Sir Alex Ferguson couldn't bear the thought of Wayne Rooney getting his feelings hurt by those mean ol' Everton fans and decided to leave his beleaguered striker at home for Saturday's match at Goodison Park. The shame of it is not that Fergie's wussy strategy arguably bit him in the skirt as United threw away a two-goal lead in stoppage time. No, the shame of it is that Tim Howard didn't get to face the Roondog on a day when the Everton (and U.S.) keeper looked as if he could stop a speeding bullet, let alone anything Tabloid Wayne had to offer.

Granted that Rooney's absence shouldn't cause a defense as battle-hardened as Man U's to self-destruct and allow two unforgivably late goals when the three points appeared to be in the bag. Still, Saturday's turn of events was so surreal that it left me wondering:

1. Was Fergie's decision to spare Rooney from "the terrible abuse" at Goodison Park more of a paternalistic gesture, or was it a metaphorical boot in the face to his star player, similar to the real one he famously kicked at David Beckham to show his vein-popping displeasure at Becks' "flash" lifestyle?

2. What if Howard had played as spectacularly this summer against Ghana as he did against United and, instead of letting in two near-post goals, he had made the kind of miraculous saves he did Saturday? Would the U.S. men have beaten Ghana and gone on to defeat Uruguay in the quarterfinals of the World Cup and found themselves in the semis… OK, I'll stop the fantasy there.

Even the notoriously grumpy English media could not burble enough about Howard's two mind-blowing saves -- and a third merely world-class one -- that kept Everton in a game the Toffees should have been receiving last rites for as early as the 40th minute, such was the extent of United's domination after surviving a wobbly start to open the match.

In the 34th minute, when Nani laid the ball off to an unmarked Paul Scholes lurking dead center at the top of the box, the only question was whether he would pick out the left or right corner. Howard guessed wrong, diving to his left as Scholes unleashed his thunderbolt. But the ball hit Everton's Tim Cahill and took flight in the opposite direction. What happened next in the nanosecond that Howard had to react was astonishing. In midair, with his hands extended to his left, Howard flicked out his right leg and kicked the ball away to safety. This was followed only four minutes later by an equally ridiculous save in which the American once again showed that when it comes to sheer athleticism and instinct between the posts, he has few equals.

Ryan Giggs must still be shaking his head over how an off-balance Howard was able to get a hand up to stop his ferocious drive from 10 yards out. To grasp the speed of thought required to make that save, imagine turning off the bedroom light by the door and getting into bed before the room went dark. Can you blame United for thinking that, Rooney or no Rooney, this was not going to be their day, especially after Everton, inspired by Howard's double miracle, tore down the field and scored to make it 1-0?

Howard didn't celebrate quite as maniacally as he did after his half-field outlet pass freed Landon Donovan en route to the last-minute winner against Algeria. But that's only because he knew there was more than half the game to be played and Man U was hardly waving a white handkerchief. The Red Devils hit back with goals on either side of the half, with Darren Fletcher scoring in the 43rd minute and Nemanja Vidic heading the ball home in the 47th. And you could only marvel at Dimitar Berbatov's cool-as-you-like-outside-of-the-foot finish with about 25 minutes remaining.

But, oh, the welcome relief Howard felt as the Everton faithful chanted his name was etched on his face. It was quite a different look from the one he wore in the opening game of the season when he made a Robert Green-worthy fumble to gift Blackburn the only goal of the game.

After his underwhelming performance in the World Cup, you'd be forgiven for wondering whether Howard had lost his mojo in South Africa. Cue Saturday's performance, which couldn't have come at a better time because with Everton's season off to its usual stuttering start, the Toffees needed something to lift them. Howard's heroics at Goodison, and the insane two-goal comeback, did the rest.

Pity that Wayne Rooney wasn't around to see it.

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."