JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Tim Howard is a conductor.

He is the man that watches everything, sees everything; he points towards holes he wants filled, and gestures for shifts that will ensure balance.

But Howard, 31, does his orchestrating looking very little like a conductor and more like Bobby Knight, circa 1976 - sometimes forcefully punching air like a boxer in training, other times spitting commands at his defenders.

Howard, you might have gathered, is Team USA's starting goalkeeper.

On Saturday afternoon, he'll be the guy running between the sticks when the United States opens its 2010 FIFA World Cup campaign against England.

Howard grew up in North Brunswick, N.J. - a half-hour drive from Giants Stadium. He has played soccer since age 6, professionally since graduating from North Brunswick Township in 1997, and at the elite level, first for Major League Soccer's NY/NJ MetroStars, then Manchester United of the English Premier League, and currently with Everton, also in the Premiership.

Howard's abilities and reflexes, have long been among the world's fastest at his position, but it has been his maturity and development - learned in part through his evolving career in England - that have ushered him into this new phase of his goalkeeping life: World Cup starter and veteran presence on Team USA.

There are also other, more complementary, pieces to Howard's soccer story: a Christian faith that has survived the potentially chaotic lifestyle of professional sports, and his constant management of Tourette's syndrome, which he was diagnosed with as a 10-year-old.

"The confidence in just how he comes across in terms of who he is, what he's all about, that's so important in anybody," said Bob Bradley, the U.S. coach since 2006. "On the field, as a young goalkeeper, he was capable of making big saves - so athletic. As he's moved along in his career, he's done incredibly well to still make those saves, but also his reading of situations has matured."

Tourette's syndrome is, by definition, "an inherited neuropsychiatric disorder with onset in childhood, characterized by multiple physical (motor) tics and at least one vocal (phonic) tic; these tics characteristically wax and wane."

In his teenage years, Howard said he felt insecure, specifically in how the disorder would affect him athletically.

"Soon after that, I dispelled that myth to myself," Howard said. "When I'm on the field, nothing else matters, nothing else exists. That was my sanctuary; I learned that at a pretty early age."

Howard said his Tourette's is "there every day," but also that after so many years, he'd think it weird if he awoke one day without having to battle it, like suddenly there would be no bottomless pit into which he could throw that daily concentration and effort.

Howard, who has exhibited no characteristic of the disease at the World Cup even when engulfed by a swarm of cameras and reporters, is a member of the board of directors for the Tourette Syndrome Association of New Jersey.

It was actually Howard's Tourette's diagnosis that made the journey to England ahead of him even more challenging. In the middle of the 2003 MLS season, Manchester United, arguably the most popular soccer club in the world, paid the MetroStars a $4 million transfer fee for Howard's services.

The English papers, notorious for their tabloid journalism, reportedly printed headlines about Howard that included the terms, "retarded" and "disabled."

In his first season with Man U, he was named the Premier league's goalkeeper of the year.

Compared with life with the MetroStars, where Howard could dine anywhere and walk through a bookstore unnoticed, England's "football" passion placed Howard - and his wife, Laura - in a media bubble.

"We went to McDonald's, and the entire place was staring at him eating," Howard's long-time friend, Steve Senior, told the Newark Star-Ledger last week. "At the mall, everyone would be looking at him and whispering. People would yell 'Hey, American!' At stoplights, kids would be coming up to the car and tapping the windows.

"It was great, because he learned so much and it took his confidence to a whole other level. He would say even practice was like the Super Bowl. Playing in the elements helped him learn to focus. He said it was such an experience, but he needed that to feel comfortable and not in awe of everything he sees now."

Despite his strong start for Manchester United, a mistake in a 2004 UEFA Champions League match against FC Porto, cost United a goal and eliminated them from the competition.

For parts of 2004 and 2005, Howard bounced between starter and reserve for Man U, apparently struggling to regain form and confidence. In May of 2006, United loaned Howard to Everton and he established himself as the team's first-string goalie. He eventually signed a permanent deal, good through 2012-13, with the Toffees.

The English cathedral is, for the most part, the soccer pitch. At Old Trafford, United's home stadium, a banner hung stating, "Manchester United is religion."

"Some people bask in that glory," Howard told Worldwide Challenge, the bimonthly publication for Campus Crusade for Christ. "For me, it's a burden."

"Tim lives for God," his wife, Laura, told the magazine. "He doesn't live for fame or success. He doesn't think he's bigger than he is."

Howard is actively involved with Athletes In Action, an extension of Campus Crusade for Christ.

"The most important thing in my life is Christ," Howard was quoted as saying. "He's more important to me than winning or losing or whether I'm playing or not. Everything else is just a bonus."

"He's just a cool guy to me," said U.S. midfielder Ricardo Clark. "I played with him my first year in the league in New York and he's always been there to help me out and give me pointers on the field - on or off the field, actually. He's a pretty straight-up guy."

In the team's final send-off match, which the United States eventually won, 2-1, but trailed at halftime, Howard could be seen screaming instructions to his backline, especially when gripping the ball, which he had just barely kept out the net.

"I'm very, very, very competitive and tenacious and aggressive," Howard explained. "But that's on the field."

Said defender Jay DeMerit, who also plays in England, for second-tier Watford: "I think with somebody like Timmy, who's played at the top for so long, it helps guys like myself, who might not have as much big-game experience."

Does DeMerit listen to all of Howard's on-field chatter?

"Yeah, of course - it's hard not to."

Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at 856-779-3844 or kfagan@phillynews.com.