JOHANNESBURG - The lone fan in the blue U.S. Soccer T-shirt looked woefully out of place surrounded by dozens of England supporters - until he turned around.
Tim Howard's name was emblazoned across his shoulders.
At home and abroad, Howard's athleticism, unshakable confidence and leadership have won the Everton goalkeeper rave reviews. And despite being "in agony" from bruised - maybe broken - ribs, he made six saves to seal the Americans' 1-1 draw with England on Saturday night at the World Cup.
"He's an outstanding success," Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who brought Howard to the English Premier League in 2003, said recently. "We're delighted, because I love the lad. Good lad."
U.S. coach Bob Bradley said yesterday that Howard would be re-evaluated after his full-speed collision with Emile Heskey's boots. However, he expects him to play Friday against Slovenia, which took the lead in Group C by beating Algeria 1-0 yesterday.
"He did a great job of taking a tough hit, and staying in it and playing really well," Bradley said. " . . . When you see the way Timmy handled himself after the collision last night, you'd certainly expect he'll be on the field again."
Goalkeeper has been a source of strength during the U.S. team's resurgence in the last 25 years. The hand-eye coordination American kids develop playing baseball, football and basketball make them naturals in goal, where cat-quick reflexes and sure hands are a must.
But there's a certain steeliness that sets great keepers apart from merely very good ones, and few are stronger than Howard, the cornerstone of the U.S. team.
Howard suffered from Tourette's syndrome growing up in New Jersey, but found his comfort zone in sports. He played basketball and soccer, and excelled at both.
He was playing on U.S. youth soccer teams before he could drive, and was 19 when he made his debut in Major League Soccer. In his third full season, he was voted MLS goalkeeper of the year. Two years later, Howard was on his way to England to play for Manchester United.
"There's challenges flying in everywhere. It's nonstop action," Howard said. "It's end to end, and that's what makes it different than other leagues. For me, it's hardened me. I was criticized a lot when I was over there and I bounced back. I feel like I was able to take my lumps and get better, so I've definitely become hardened and more resolute."
After a spectacular debut season with the Red Devils - he was the Premier League's goalkeeper of the year - he found himself stuck behind Edwin van der Sar at Manchester. He was loaned to Everton in 2006 and has blossomed there, developing into one of the league's top goalkeepers.
Howard is a commanding presence in goal, and not simply because of his size (6-3, 210 pounds). With his shaved head and a ferocity that is palpable, the sight of him charging forward is enough to make any opponent hesitate.
The Americans have won 31 of his 52 appearances, including last year's upset of top-ranked Spain in a Confederations Cup semifinal. Howard was awarded the Golden Glove as the tournament's best keeper.
"In these tournaments, you need a good goalkeeper," dfefender Steve Cherundolo said. "So we're very, very happy Tim's on our side."