For a goalkeeper, the World Cup knockout stage can be very simple. Stop every shot. Make every save. Win every match.
For American keeper Tim Howard, advancing past Belgium in the round of 16 starts—well, stops—with him.
Gone are the heartbreaking draws and good losses of the group stage. The World Cup is a win-or-go-home tournament now, and heading into Tuesday's matches in the round of 16, Howard may have to be perfect for the United States men's national team to stay alive.
As the result against Germany in the final game of the group stage clearly showed, even one mistake can be the difference between World Cup life and sudden death.
Looking back on Thomas Mueller's goal for Germany that put the United States on the ropes of elimination—staved off by Portugal's victory over Ghana—the shot itself was impossible for Howard to save. It was, in soccer terms, a perfect strike from Mueller, though it was teed up off a rebound that Howard was not able to brush to safety cleanly.
If there was fault to be assigned for that Germany tally, it may not have been placed solely on Howard in that moment. But such is the life of a keeper in the World Cup, and it's only going to get harder in the knockout stage.
Howard won Man of the Match against Portugal despite letting in two goals. He had little chance to defend the first, and the second came in the waning seconds of extra time off a miscommunication in the box between two of his defenders.
If there was fault to be assigned for that late Portuguese tally, it too may not have been solely on Howard. Still, the United States—and that includes Howard—was left wondering what else it could have done.
In the opening match against Ghana, the United States held firm for nearly 85 minutes after scoring a first-minute goal against the Black Stars. Howard was spectacular during the match, as the Ghanaians kept pressuring the American back line with very little relief.
If there was fault to be assigned for the match-tying tally, it may not have been solely on Howard at the time, but he did allow Andre Ayew to beat him on the short side, a mistake that could mean certain death at any point in the tournament, but especially in the knockout stage.
Howard's control has been traditionally exceptional with an ever-changing back line this tournament. His scrambling defense—as seen on that wonderful save against Portugal after an initial shot (that he missed) careened off the post—is some of the best in the entire world.
If there is faith to be held with one player as the U.S. heads to the knockout stage, it should be placed in the veteran keeper.
Jurgen Klinsmann has faith Howard can do enough in the knockout stage to help the U.S. advance, recently calling him one of the top five keepers in the world. Howard has downplayed his coach's plaudits, via Rick Maese of The Washington Post:
I don’t want to get caught up in that. That doesn’t matter to me. That’s just opinion. I feel like I’m playing well. At 35, I feel as fit as I’ve ever been. I’m as strong as I’ve ever been. I’m seeing the game at a slower pace, which helps. ... That’s all that’s important to me.
The way some of the keepers in this tournament have looked so far—and the results that have befallen some of the best performers at the World Cup—Howard will need to play well for the United States to advance. In fact, he may have to prove he's better than even Klinsmann thinks he is.
The margins are at their slimmest in the knockout stage of the World Cup. Belgium, like any team, is not too talented to survive any mistakes. Howard will have to be perfect, as just being great may not be good enough to advance.
Already half of the knockout matches have gone to extra time, with two—Brazil vs. Chile and Costa Rica vs. Greece—finishing in penalties. The fate of the best keepers in the World Cup has not always been just in the early part of the knockout stage.
Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa was fantastic the entire tournament, and now he is back at home after giving up two goals in the last 10 minutes to the Netherlands.
There is absolutely nothing Ochoa could have done to stop the blast by Wesley Sneijder in the 88th minute to tie that match, but the keeper did get caught a tiny bit in no-man's land on the corner kick that led to the goal.
On the penalty that decided the match, Ochoa—arguably the best keeper in the entire tournament this year—guessed the wrong way and watched Klaas-Jan Huntelaar slide the match-winner in the opposite corner. Ochoa was named Man of the Match in defeat.
He was great all match, but he needed to be perfect.
How many keepers in the knockout round have been asked to do the impossible this week, and how many are still in the tournament after failing to do just that?
Nigerian keeper Vincent Enyeama was the reason the Super Eagles made the knockout stage at all, recording two clean sheets in the group stage and playing well at times in the third match, despite letting three goals in against Argentina.
For 78 minutes against France, Enyeama was stellar, until Paul Pogba netted home a header off a set piece Enyeama had no chance to stop. An own goal in the 90th minute sealed his fate, and the best-rated keeper after the group stage was, like Ochoa, going home.
It's possible that as good as Enyeama was for Nigeria, Algerian keeper Rais M'Bolhi was even better for his African side in the knockout stage. M'Bolhi was named Man of the Match despite giving up two goals, both in extra time, as the Algerians fell to Germany 2-1 after an amazing display from their keeper.
Germany had 29 shots in the match, 22 of which were on goal, with M'Bolhi making a ridiculous 11 saves. But he wasn't perfect, so it wasn't good enough to advance.
This is the challenge Howard will face against Belgium.
This being the knockout stage, the match with the Red Devils could come down to penalties. Chilean keeper Claudio Bravo made six saves against Brazil to just one for Julio Cesar through the full 120 minutes of that match, but the results in the penalties told a different story.
Despite making one save and seeing another shot skid wide in the shootout—usually enough for any keeper to see his team advance—Bravo had to stand next to the net and watch Cesar save two shots before a third careened off the post, sealing Chile's fate and making the effort from Bravo nothing but a footnote in Brazil's ongoing World Cup history.
Cesar was named Man of the Match. Admittedly, Cesar wasn't perfect, either—and he needed the crossbar to save him both in the shootout and late in the match in order to secure victory. He was just a bit more perfect than Bravo, which was the difference in the shootout…and the tournament.
Should the match with Belgium advance to penalties, Howard will hope to meet the same fate as Cesar, or perhaps that of Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas, who has been flat-out phenomenal for the Ticos this entire tournament.
Playing down a man for most of the second half against Greece in the round-of-16 match, the Costa Ricans finally broke down, allowing a last-minute goal to force extra time. Despite the lone goal, Navas was great the entire match, stopping seven Grecian shots to miraculously force a shootout.
In the shootout, Navas made just one stop, thwarting Theofanis Gekas with a textbook save, but it was enough to secure the victory for the Costa Ricans.
Through the first six (of eight) round-of-16 matches, a goalkeeper was named Man of the Match four times, two of which came in losses.
What does this say for Howard? Great may not be good enough. The only way to ensure victory is to be perfect.
Everton manager Roberto Martinez, working in Brazil for ESPN, was asked about Howard by FIFA.com, saying, "If you ask me there is no better goalkeeper in the Premier League. His belief and understanding of the game and his desire to achieve more is contagious.”
It's ironic, then, that Howard will be facing a team that boasts 22-year-old phenom Thibaut Courtois (and his jetliner wingspan) at the other end of the pitch.
For one match in Brazil, Howard will have the chance to prove Martinez right. Though with Courtois at the top of his game, proving his manager right may also mean having to be absolutely perfect.
Courtois has let in just one goal the entire tournament, coming off a penalty in the first half of the victory over Algeria in the group stage. Courtois has seldom been tested through three matches, facing just 19 on-target strikes and needing to make only eight saves the entire tournament.
For the United States to have any chance to beat Belgium, it will need to do better than Algeria, Russia and South Korea did against Courtois. Yet for Howard, the fact the Belgians have allowed so few scoring chances this tournament puts even more pressure on him to be perfect.
It may help Howard that he is uniquely familiar with many of the players who make up the Belgian attack.
Marouane Fellaini—the man Howard should be most nervous about if there are any set pieces careening into the box on Tuesday—became an all-around star at Everton before moving early last season to Manchester United.
In addition to the Everton connections, there are obviously other Premier League ties as well, with the likes of Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele, Adnan Januzaj and, for a brief stint at least, Kevin De Bruyne among the talented Belgian roster to log time in England's top division with Howard.
Will familiarity help Howard, or will his former teammates share a book on the keeper's tendencies?
If the match goes to penalties and we see a run of Evertonians lined up at the spot, we will get the sense of Marc Wilmots' thinking very quickly.
And still, no matter which players he faces, Howard knows that if he is perfect in net, his team will advance.
Howard told FIFA.com after the group stage that the United States has played what he called "some brilliant football" so far in this tournament. The play against Portugal was very good, but Howard is probably overselling the performances against Ghana and Germany, at least in terms of style of play, if not outcome in the match against the former.
Still, there are positives in facing a team in Belgium that many have called the dark horse to win the 2014 World Cup.
There is very little pressure on the United States to advance and an enormous amount of pressure on the young Belgians, which could help the United States get the result it wants. "We’re not world-beaters yet," Howard told FIFA.com, "but we’re standing toe-to-toe with some big teams.”
With everything on the line, the U.S. has its biggest chance to prove it can be world-beaters. The stage is set for the United States to win and advance. Howard is probably going to have to be perfect, though, in order to do it.
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