By the time he steps onto the field, Tim Howard is already sweating. A thick droplet drips from his angled brow and falls to the turf at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland. Not that a lot of people notice—the seats are mostly vacant, and with good reason. There's still plenty of time before tonight's friendly against Belgium kicks off. But the beads of moisture lining Howard's forehead reveal that his work ahead of the match has been underway for awhile now.
"Preparation is a total body thing," Howard says. "It's not enough to be prepared mentally or physically. Your emotions have to be ready as well. Everything has to come together."
For the 34-year-old Howard to have been so successful (in a recent match against Scotland, he recorded his 34th shutout for the U.S. Men's National Team) for so long (in 2001 he became the youngest player ever to win Major League Soccer's Goalkeeper of the Year Award; he was playing for Manchester United by age 24; and he's been the man between the posts for the U.S. team since 2007), he had to find a method that works for "keeping everything together." Now that he's found it, he sticks to it with near-religious devotion.
"My pregame routine is just that: It's a ritual. I do the same things all the time," Howard says.
Step one: visualization. "It's not a sit-down, meditation-style visualization," Howard says. "But it is about always thinking good thoughts: Thinking about making a big save. Thinking about winning the game. Going back over the game plan."
The ritual that begins in Howard's head extends to the locker room and onto the field. "From the time I put my shin pads on, I do everything the same," Howard says. He laces up his cleats the same. Puts on his jersey the same way. Performs the same dynamic warm-up in the dressing room. "I like to be sweating before I hit the field," he adds.
Out on the grass, he runs short strides, does some High Knees, and moves through a quick segment of static stretching. Then goalkeeper coach Chris Woods joins Howard to help him work on volleys. Woods kicks the ball toward the goal and Howard practices jumping and catching or deflecting it.
"I catch eight balls, then another eight balls, then six balls," Howard says. "It's very specific, numbers-wise, because that allows me to get into the mental groove I need to be in, knowing that I've done this over and over hundreds of times."
The hardest part of the warm-up? Groundwork, Howard says. "[Stopping low shots] is the thing you want to do the least, especially when it's cold and wet." After progressing through each type of save, Woods takes harder, faster, less-predictable shots toward Howard. The process takes a long time. When it's over, the stands are much more occupied. It's nearly time for the opening whistle.
"When you finish the warm-up," Howard says, "it allows you to have that feel-good sensation that you've done all of your homework. Now it's game time."
If his preparation for soccer matches seems meticulous and intentional, his entry into the sport was anything but. A self-described "hyperactive kid," Howard grew up with a love of sports, listing basketball (which is still his favorite), street hockey and soccer among those he liked best.
"I just loved to score, and win," Howard says. "No matter what it is, if they're keeping score, I want to win."
Howard says he took to soccer because the game never stopped. He enjoyed the running, the chasing, the kicking. He wound up in goal only because, at a young age, he was taller than his peers.
"I just loved it," Howard says. "For whatever reason, it just stuck. I loved diving around, I liked making saves. It became fun for me."
Success happened gradually from there. Howard says, "I don't think there was a single moment where I felt I was going to be a great goalkeeper, that I was head and shoulders above everybody else. It slowly manifested itself over time. You play a good game. Then you get selected for a club team. Then you get selected for your state ODP [Olympic Development Program] team. The ball just keeps rolling, and then all of the sudden you're thinking, well, not everyone's doing this. This is something special."
Listening to him speak, one gets the sense that Howard, who's modest and affable in his delivery, may not be giving himself enough credit. He was still a teenager when he made his MLS debut, was voted Goalkeeper of the Year in the prestigious English Premier League during his first season with Manchester, and may wind up, when his career is over, as the U.S. team's winningest goalkeeper of all time.
"I've always said that I wanted to be remembered as a guy who, every single time he put the shirt on, gave you a 110 percent," Howard says. "That doesn't always mean you play great, you know, because I'm human. If you have longevity, it means you've played a lot of great games. But every now and then you have a bad game. I think that my intensity, desire and passion to compete have never been lost on anybody. When I put on the shirt and crossed the line, I was going to give you everything.
Tim Howard's Quick Tips
Outspoken on the field and off, Howard doesn't hesitate to speak his mind on...
"The easiest way as a goalkeeper to set a strong tempo is use your body language and words to encourage guys. It can be just a thumbs-up, a wink or a 'well done.' You want to reaffirm that feeling, that positive vibe, as the game goes on."
"I look after what I put into my body. I eat lots of lean proteins and good fats—avocados, nuts, peanut butter. Fruit gives you fiber and a burst of energy. In games, I refuel with Gatorade."
"The one I hate the most—but is the most effective—is Bench Press directly into Pull-Ups or Chin-Ups. By the time you reach your fourth set you feel weak, because you can't pull yourself up."
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