Goalkeeping was not the Colorado Rapids’ problem this weekend. That is scant consolation regarding a match that was won by Real Salt Lake with goals in the 85th and 88th minutes, but it’s all that’s on offer. On the pitch, Colorado’s problem is still a near pathological aversion to converting chances into goals. With any semblance of competent finishing, they would have quickly dispatched RSL. Instead, the match only offered the Rapids a 90-minute reprieve from thinking about Tim Howard.
Yes, that Tim Howard. The erstwhile US goalkeeper was serving the first leg of his three-game suspension due to what the league termed “foul language directed at a fan” and “an altercation with a fan following the game” during the Rapids’ previous match against Sporting Kansas City. Video of the former incident circulated on Twitter. In typical fashion, the forensic instincts of soccer fandom took over. The exact phraseology remains up for debate, but the statement involved Howard and the fan’s mother. Make of that what you will.
This would be a bad look for any player, but it is all the more troubling when it comes to Howard. He is, for better and, increasingly, for worse, one of the faces of the league. That face — all determination and brambled beard — still fronts much of the league’s promotional material, including its “Don’t Cross the Line” campaign, which is aimed at improving fans’ behaviour. The MLS of 2017 doesn’t really need Howard to be its best player. In that respect, he has returned to a very different league than the one he left in 2003. Instead, this version of MLS needs him to play the part of a party grandee, which is bad news for all involved.
This mess was wholly predictable. Howard is not exactly a model of moderation. In good times, this makes him more endearing than your average automaton athlete. In January, however, he complained about some dual national team-mates suffering from a “lack of passion”. Anyone even slightly aware of US Soccer’s fraught history could have recognized the xenophobic history of that canard. Howard subsequently sought to clarify the statement, claiming that the lack of passion he had identified was not limited to dual nationals. The damage, however, had been done. Of late, he’s been more of a liability than a source of candour.
Nevertheless Howard appeared in an MLS video calling on fans to “take the pledge” to end discrimination. He looked like a hostage in a proof of life video while mumbling “no matter how bitter the rivalry”. Howard was hardly the sole problem with a campaign that never defined what constituted discriminatory behaviour. In a league where the most troubling chants are often speciously defended as not being homophobic, this slipperiness was unconvincing. As with much of Howard’s work since rejoining MLS, he was serving as a suboptimal frontman for a compromised campaign. Instead of smoothing out these contradictions, the star’s presence only served to highlight them. He had to be there, however, because he was Tim Howard.
That, it increasingly turns out, is the Tim Howard problem. He is no longer hugely useful in either a playing or promotional capacity, but one cannot simply discard him. He remains a significant figure in American soccer culture, even if his best days are well in the past. Thus, MLS has to talk out of both corners of its mouth: including him in its “Don’t Cross the Line” campaign and suspending him when, predictably, a fan allegedly crossed the line and so did he. At the national level, this charade will continue because he fits perfectly with Bruce Arena’s get-the-band-back-together ethos.
On the pitch, meanwhile, L’Affaire Howard was little more than afterthought. Zac MacMath, his replacement in the Rapids’ goal, was perfectly serviceable. Colorado spent most of the match defending their early lead on the back of a Kevin Doyle goal, which allowed MacMath to focus on distribution. He did just that, but the team’s attacking players had little to offer. Real Salt Lake’s equalizer — a Yura Movsisyan penalty after Jared Watts’ handball — was the price for such profligacy. Howard might have saved the penalty, but the Rapids’ problem wasn’t goalkeeping. The same held true for the winner, which Brooks Lennon curled past MacMath after slicing through the Rapids’ backline. It was simply a good shot from the youth international, who is on loan in Salt Lake City from Liverpool.
“I feel like dog poop,” Rapids manager Pablo Mastroeni said after the match. It was one more indelicate phrase at the end of a week with too many, but at least he had a point. The Rapids remain rooted the bottom of the league table, albeit with a game in hand. There is, however, no reason to believe that game will see them discover a scoring touch. The club’s lengthy unbeaten home streak is now over. There’s not much to feel good about. In such a context, it’d almost be a relief if the whole debacle could be pinned on Howard’s absence. Instead, it had little tangible effect. He said something predictably stupid, was predictably suspended, and was predictably not badly missed. A name-brand player can probably get away with two of those three elements in the currently constituted MLS, but going three-for-three is pushing anyone’s luck.
— Some of MLS’ marquee names are aging more gracefully than Tim Howard. Chief of among them is David Villa, who usually runs with great enthusiasm, but can apparently be counted upon even when he doesn’t feel like running. He lobbed the Philadelphia goalkeeper Andre Blake from fifty yards while marked by two men. “I was a little bit tired from running,” he later explained, “so I just tried it and it went in.” This, for Andrea Pirlo and those following along at home, is what to do when you don’t feel like expending too much energy.
— “Kings of Cascadia,” read the tifo displayed before the Vancouver Whitecaps’ derby against the Seattle Sounders. Neutrals might have been forgiven for thinking Seattle’s fans had trekked across the border with it to celebrate their recent MLS Cup victory. A rogue Portland fan still relishing the club’s triumph of 2015 might also have been the guilty party. But no, the tifo belonged to the Whitecaps, who have occasionally enjoyed success in the Cascadia Cup but little else. This, however, was a Freaky Friday of a match. Not only did Cascadia’s least successful MLS team prevail 2–1 to make the tifo appear less outrageous, but both goals were scored by former Sounders favourite Fredy Montero.
— Bastian Schweinsteiger’s honeymoon in Chicago shows no signs of abating. He scored again and the Fire — undefeated since his arrival — won again. Former MLS MVP and Chicago Fire forward Mike Magee took to Instagram to joke about all the “idiots” who had proclaimed Schweinsteiger a “terrible signing.” He had a point. Like Jose Mourinho, MLS pessimists may have called time on the German’s playing days a bit prematurely.
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