SALVADOR, Brazil -- Tim Howard kept the ball out of the net with slides, with dives and with leaps.
He couldn’t do it forever.
With the United States trying to reach the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time since 2002, he saved 12 of Belgium’s shots in regulation to keep the game scoreless.
But Kevin De Bruyne scored in the 93rd minute and Romelu Lukaku in the 105th to build a two-goal lead for the Red Devils, who hung on for a 2-1 win Tuesday that eliminated the Americans in the second round for the second straight World Cup.
Howard tried to sound modest.
“I’m just trying to do all the things that have gotten me here and gotten us here,” he said. “That’s what I signed up to do—stick my face in front of balls. It’s nothing startling.”
Howard finished with 16 saves, the most in a World Cup game since FIFA started keeping track in 2002. It was his finest performance in 13 years with the national team.
“For my heart, please don’t give me too many games like this,” Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said. “He was in a state of grace.”
Howard was the first goalkeeper to be America’s No. 1 in consecutive World Cups since Tony Meola in 1990 and ‘94. His 104 international appearances are the U.S. record, two more than the previous mark held by Kasey Keller.
“Tim was awesome for us,” U.S. captain Clint Dempsey said. “As you would expect from him.”
Howard yells a lot during games. More than most goalkeepers.
And his teammates love him for that.
“He’s somebody that we rely on so much for his performances on the field but also his leadership and his presence,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “There’s not enough good things to say about him as a player, as a man, as a leader.”
Now 35, Howard has been the starter for Everton in England’s Premier League since the middle of the 2007-08 season. He is signed until 2018 and relishes the grind of the world’s top league. He plans to play “as long as my body lets me” and acknowledges “that’s obviously not a question that I can really answer now.”
He also won’t commit to another four years with the national team and the repeated flights from Britain to the U.S., Caribbean and Central America for national team games.
“Those decisions will be made, obviously, when I’m less emotional and things settle down and I have a few important conversations with important people,” Howard said.
Brad Guzan—Aston Villa’s top goalkeeper—is Howard’s No. 2 and at 29 is positioned well for the 2018 World Cup should Howard decide to retire from the national team. Calling it an “extraordinary performance,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati didn’t sound as if Howard would be leaving anytime soon.
“I’m not sure Timmy is ready to not look towards Russia,” Gulati said. “He’s one of the players that matters. And nobody goes into a tournament like this with our team and doesn’t expect Timmy to play really well.”
Howard was among the final American players to leave the locker room of the stadium on Brazil’s northeast coast, suddenly and unhappily ready for a few weeks off before reporting to Everton for preseason training.
He carried a small silver-colored case, clearly not part of the gear he had when he arrived at Arena Fonte Nova. Despite the U.S. defeat, he was selected the Man of the Match and was given an award.
Was this his least player of the game honor?
That was far easier to deal with than the shots he faced.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s for sure.”