Throughout Tim Howard’s storied career, there have been countless moments of excellence that have defined his legacy. Many will be quick to recall Howard’s legendary 16-save performance against Belgium in the 2014 FIFA World Cup or his countless Premier League exploits. More recently Rapids fans may remember his heroics against the LA Galaxy in the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs. We'll recall all of the amazing memories during the season and as part of the Tim Howard Commemorative Series, but first we must start at the beginning.
Off the back of the 1994 FIFA World Cup which was held on American soil, there was a buzz about the sport of soccer in the United States. The newly-formed MLS had recognizable faces, but hardly the infrastructure and fan support enjoyed nearly 25 years later. Among those marketable faces from the '94 Cup was the starting goalkeeper for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, and Tim Howard’s predecessor, Tony Meola.
“In the late nineties Tony Meola was a household name for the World Cups that he played in and what he meant to this country in terms of soccer,” Howard recalled recently. “Any goalkeeper in the nineties looked up to Tony Meola and wanted to have his autograph, to get their picture taken with him, get his gloves and all of that kind of stuff.”
In 1998, Tim Howard was just an athletic unknown 18-year-old from New Brunswick, New Jersey. That year he joined Major League Soccer becoming the backup goalkeeper behind Meola. This meant an up-close-and-personal look at a living legend of his position. Whether he was fully aware or not, Howard was to become the understudy of Meola. The teenager would train with the legend during every session and furthermore, the duo would become regular roommates for away trips.
“He (Tony) looked after me,” Howard said. “I had to earn his respect and he made me earn his respect, which is the right way to do things.
From the beginning it was clear to the elder statesman that the young professional had a desire to learn that matched his amazing athleticism.
"I was fortunate enough to see Tim on his first day as a professional," Meola said in a recent email exchange. "It didn’t take long to see that Tim was extremely athletic and had a desire to learn the position. He was not afraid to ask questions and listen to advice about how he could improve different aspects of his play."
Howard continued to train as the number two behind Meola throughout the 1998 season. Like every young player, he waited for his opportunity to showcase his talent. That chance came on August 15 when Meola was given a one-game suspension for arguing with a referee during and after their 3-1 loss to the Miami Fusion. Three days later, Tim Howard's name was among the eleven starts as the MetroStars prepared to face the Colorado Rapids.
“Going into that week I knew I’d be playing,” Howard said. “It was pretty daunting, but I was excited. I was nervous as heck. All of my friends and family could watch me play and I just remember being really nervous.”
On the biggest day of his young professional career, Howard's mentor was there to support him every step of the way.
“He (Tony) got to the stadium beforehand,” Howard recalled. “Even though he was suspended and wanted to be playing, he was so excited for me and I remember that being special because he was like a big brother.”
When Howard arrived at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands ahead of the game he found a handwritten note taped to his stool from Meola that read: “You're going to do great today. Tony.”
"I thought it was important to be fully supportive," Meola said. "There were a bit of nerves during the week as I remember, but come gameday, you could tell there wouldn’t be an issue once the game started."
Howard tucked away the note and headed to the field for his debut.
The match itself went about as well as a professional debut could, but it wasn't until the second half when Howard had his 'welcome to the pros' moment. It happened in the 63rd minute against one of the top scorers in Major League Soccer, Wolde Harris. Over two decades removed, Howard still remembers the moment in brilliant clarity.
“Wolde (Harris), who was a very good player in this league, was coming in one on one,” Howard said. “He feigned a shot, I dropped down, so he cut inside. I got back up really quickly and then I went into this spread position. He smashed it to my right, and I got a big paw on it and kept it out.”
It was a world-class save and an important moment for a young keeper to feel like he belonged at the professional level.
“With the authority that he hit the ball and the ability for me to be as quick as I was in reacting and keeping a strong hand, it was an amazing save to be honest when I look back at it,” Howard said. “For that to be my first big save, it was pretty cool.”
Howard would go on to make five saves in a 4-1 win over the Rapids before an announced crowd of 10,217. When the victorious MetroStars walked off of the pitch and into the tunnel Tony Meola was there waiting for his understudy to greet him with a hug and encouraging words.
"'You did good, Tim,' Howard recalls Meola saying. 'You did really, really good.'"
Years down the line that first game will go down as one of the most memorable games Tim Howard would ever play.
“I had my coming out moment,” Howard said. “For me as a goalkeeper I was like ‘okay I’m a professional now.’ That meant a lot to me. It’s on the highlight reels and it’s one that I remember 21 years later.”
Meola was traded to the Kansas City Wizards following the 1998 season, and continued to play in Major League Soccer until 2006.
"So many guys have come into the goalkeeping position in this country and have been anointed as the “next big thing” but I had my money on Tim from day one, and it came as no surprise to see his career go in the direction that it did."