After plenty of speculation over recent months, the news officially came out on Sunday that Tim Howard is returning to MLS this summer.
The Everton goalkeeper, who turned 37 earlier this month, will join the Colorado Rapids on a three-and-a-half-year deal as a Designated Player on 4 July, bringing him back to the league where he originally made a name for himself with his hometown MetroStars.
For the Rapids – a team which has consistently struggled for relevancy compared to some of the league’s bigger market sides – there’s no doubt that the move is a big coup from a PR standpoint. Despite his recent struggles at Everton, Howard remains one of the most popular and recognisable figures in American soccer and brings some much-needed star power to the sparsely-filled confines of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
More importantly, while his Premier League form has noticeably declined over the past 18 months, the US international should still be one of the top keepers in MLS, as well as an experienced head in a dressing room currently lacking leaders. It’s a signing which few would have predicted possible for the club at the start of the year, and in that respect, the front office deserves a great deal of credit for making it happen.
Nevertheless, when looking at the money Howard is reportedly set to earn, it’s not hard to understand why the move hasn’t escaped criticism either. According to ESPN FC’s Jeff Carlisle, who first reported that the Rapids were pursuing his signature back in January, the three-time World Cup veteran will be making between $2.5 million and $2.8 million [£1.7-1.9 million] per year over the course of his second spell in MLS. In comparison, the league’s soon-to-be second highest-paid keeper, Bill Hamid, earned just $405,000 [£286,664] last season.
And what about the combined salaries of all 20 current first-choice starters in 2015? That number comes in at $3.34 million [£2.4 million] – or 1.4 of your lowest priced Tim Howards to be exact.
Simply put, supply and demand dictates that MLS teams traditionally don’t spend big on keepers. It’s always been easy to fill the position with a solid option for a relatively modest salary, freeing up cash to spend on scarcer commodities like a playmaking midfielder or proven goalscorer that can turn an also-ran into a title contender. Howard will likely be an excellent shot-stopper back in the States, but is he worth as much as 6.9 times more than Hamid? The answer is almost certainly no.
Consider as well that the Rapids didn’t really have any concerns between the posts before they started their pursuit of Howard. Former No. 1 Clint Irwin, who was traded to Toronto FC in January in anticipation of the deal, is widely regarded as an above average starter at a bargain salary of $97,000 [£68,547] per year, while incumbent first-choice Zac MacMath can consider himself incredibly unfortunate not to have been playing regularly somewhere last season. Granted, the New Jersey native should prove an upgrade over both of his predecessors, but the improvement is certainly not enough to justify the humongous jump in salary.
In any case, Howard likely isn’t going to make a significant difference to Colorado’s playoff chances in 2016 or beyond, nor is his signing going to spark a steep increase in their league-low average attendance of 15,657. Fans will turn up to see Clint Dempsey, Kaka or Didier Drogba, but there aren’t many people who’ll be drawn to a game by a goalkeeper – no matter how many saves he once made in a World Cup game. Winning is the formula for selling tickets, and it’s debatable whether the former Manchester United man makes Pablo Mastroeni’s side much more of a successful product on the field.
Having also signed Albanian attacker Shkelzen Gashi and USA midfielder Jermaine Jones during the offseason, the Rapids do finally appear to be going in the direction after four years without a playoff win, but in the case of Howard, they seemed to be more focused on making a statement rather than actually thinking about building a title contender.
Make no mistake, the 106-times capped custodian is certainly a good player in MLS terms, but in order to provide good value for money he'll have to prove an unprecedented on-pitch and commercial success, while also defying the ageing process. It’s a big gamble for a struggling franchise to take, and one which could well turn out to be a considerable sunk cost once all is said and done.