Tim Howard is a bundle of coiled energy. The Stars and Stripes goalkeeper shouts at his back-line as he bounces up and down on his toes, and when needed, he uncoils like a spring to keep the US in with a shout. One of the top goalkeepers in the English Premier League, Howard, bushy-bearded and covered in tattoos, sprawls across the line and commands his area with total authority.

“We navigated ourselves through the so-called group of death,” he told FIFA.com after a slim loss to Germany combined with a draw against Portugal and victory over Ghana put the Americans through to the knockout stage. “Not many people gave us credit to be able to do that before the tournament started.”

When the Final Draw for Brazil 2014 was made in December, reactions in the American media were ominous. Most, like former defender-turned-commentator Alexi Lalas, were not shy voicing their pessimism about Howard and Co’s chances. “It’s always good to stuff it to a few people who always take the negative road,” Howard said, his voice as gentle and calm off the pitch as it is ferocious and commanding on it. “The only way you prove critics wrong is by going out there and doing what they say you can’t do. We did that. We did it with grit and heart.”

Howard’s role in the current US team was always going to be crucial to whatever success they found in Brazil. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann brought an inexperienced defensive unit to the world finals and Howard, 35-years-old and starting in his second FIFA World Cup™, needed to be the rubber cement holding everything together. “I’m always yelling my head off out there anyway,” he said with a snort, smiling from half of his mouth about his reputation as a barker. “I don’t want to leave any doubt about what I mean with my guys in the back.”

We’re not world-beaters yet, but we’re standing toe-to-toe with some big team.

Tim Howard, USA goalkeeper

Congratulations from Howard, a high-five from his huge paw, inspires the American defenders. They grow in stature over the course of a game. Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, John Brooks and Matt Besler aren’t exactly household names in world football, but with Howard behind them they’re playing above themselves.

“We all know what Tim Howard’s about,” said centre-back Gonzalez of LA Galaxy, who earned a bear hug from his keeper after clearing a dangerous cross off the line against the Germans. “We’ve watched him be world-class for years.”

Inspired by youth
This veteran goalkeeper puts the team on his shoulders. With over 100 caps for his nation, Howard is inspired by the youthful enthusiasm in this American team. “We’re a younger team and I always say that youth brings hunger,” said Howard, who helped his Everton side to a fifth-place finish in the Premier League in 2013/14. “Hunger is something you need at a World Cup, at any big tournament.”

Born in New Jersey, Howard played his first professional game while still a high school student before moving on to Major League Soccer. Soon he was showing the kind of dynamism and potential that had big clubs in Europe sniffing. He ended up at global giants Manchester United in 2003 to take over from legendary French custodian Fabien Barthez, before moving on to Everton and becoming an icon on Merseyside.

“If you ask me there is no better goalkeeper in the Premier League,” is the simple assessment of his club manager Roberto Martinez. “His belief and understanding of the game and his desire to achieve more is contagious.”

With a career as glittering and full of achievement as any American in history, Howard knows good football when he sees it. And he’s seeing it in front of him here in Brazil.

“We’ve been playing some brilliant football,” said Howard, latest in a long line of outstanding US keepers from Tony Meola to Brad Friedel and his beloved mentor Kasey Keller. “We’ve been able to open some teams up. We’re not world-beaters yet, but we’re standing toe-to-toe with some big teams.”