For many soccer fans, goalkeeper Tim Howard is an American hero.
In Howard's more than 100 caps with the U.S. men's national team, the longest-lasting collective memory among fans may be his jaw-dropping performance in the 2014 World Cup. There, he made 15 saves against Belgium and set a World Cup record.
Howard also became one of the highest-profile Americans to play abroad in the English Premier League -- but now Howard is returning home to Major League Soccer, where his career launched. On Tuesday, he was formally introduced as the Colorado Rapids' newest signing on a high-priced Designated Player contract.
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"We have this midseason gift in Tim Howard," Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni said on Tuesday. "Now we have a guy that's proven. We have a guy that is an outstanding character, off the field and on the field."
What that means is that 24-year-old goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who has started every game for the Rapids this season, automatically will be relegated to the bench.
But is 37-year-old Howard really a goalkeeper upgrade for a team that is No. 1 in the league?
The Rapids sure don't seem to need any extra help. They don't just top the high-powered Western Conference, they lead the entire league on points. They are riding a league-high 11-game unbeaten streak and there's no reason to think they're about to slow down.
Colorado has lost just twice this season, despite being in the bottom half of the league in goals scored, and that is partly due to MacMath, who shares the league lead in shutouts at six.
MacMath has allowed just 11 goals in 16 games, the lowest in all of MLS, worth a goals-against average of 0.69. He has played more minutes than 14 MLS goalkeepers who have allowed more goals this season. Just last month, MacMath was one of the nominees for the league's player of the month award on the strength of his 86.67 percent save rate in five starts that kept Colorado unbeaten in May.
For the 24-year-old, who came to the Rapids last season after four years with the Philadelphia Union, it seems he has just hit his stride in Colorado. He's having his best season in MLS so far.
Howard's career, on the other hand, is in transition and it's hard to know how he will fit in Colorado when he takes the field as soon as Monday, when Colorado hosts the Portland Timbers.
Since that memorable World Cup performance -- the one that earned him the nickname "Secretary of Defense" -- Howard's club form rarely matched that level at Everton, a club he joined in 2006. Restless supporters in Everton felt he was no longer able to command the box and mockingly cheered when he made routine catches in defeats against rivals. By February, Howard had been demoted to backup goalkeeper by Everton coach Roberto Martinez. One month later, the Rapids announced he would join them in the summer.
Howard also has fallen in the rankings for USMNT -- for the all-important Copa America Centenario that just wrapped up, Brad Guzan was the starting goalkeeper. Howard did play once in Copa America for an inconsequential third-place game, and it's an open question as to how many more appearances he will have as the team looks ahead to the 2018 World Cup.
That's not to say Howard can't excel in MLS or that he can't bring anything to Colorado. The Premier League and the national team are a higher level than MLS -- not being a starter in those environments certainly doesn't preclude success in MLS. And MacMath has been the beneficiary of a strong back line and defensive system in Colorado, which Howard will inherit. MacMath has only needed to make 38 saves this seson, 18th overall in the league.
Even if the difference in shot-stopping ability between Howard and MacMath may not end up being significant, Mastroeni is clearly counting on Howard's intangibles, like his leadership, communication and experience, to push the Rapids to the next level.
Still, there's something peculiar about the Rapids bringing in Howard -- it fixed a problem the team didn't have. Yes, when they reached a deal with Howard, they were coming off two straight seasons of missing the playoffs, and no one could've forecasted their spectacular form so far this year. But even then, goalkeeping was never really the problem.
For the Rapids, a team that also signed USMNT midfielder Jermaine Jones in the offseason, it may be more about bringing in a marquee player -- the type of player whom casual fans will turn out to see. Signing the so-called Secretary of Defense probably does that. The Rapids haven't come out and said that's why they signed Howard, but it's a reason that makes as much sense as any.
The Rapids were last in average attendance last season at 15,657. Despite the fact that they can't stop winning and are No. 1, they still sit near the bottom of the league in attendance. If a guy like Howard can improve that, it may not matter if he is an upgrade in goal or not.
But there are no guarantees that fans will turn out in a market that has proven to be difficult in the past. And the Rapids will be benching a very good in-form goalkeeper in MacMath for the sake of it. The question waiting to be answered is whether Howard can be a very good in-form goalkeeper for Colorado, too.