Across the beaches of Natal, in the jungle of Manaus and the downpour of Recife, Americans have invaded these World Cup cities, wearing red, white and blue and carrying Brazuca soccer balls. Inevitably, pickup games ensue between middle-aged Americans and those more adept at playing the beautiful game.
Good-natured ribbing follows. "Oh, Americano! Ir no gol!"
As British newspaper The Guardian put it, "Even for those who did not speak a word of Portuguese, the message was easy enough to understand. 'Hey, American! Get in goal!' Those words were delivered in good humour, but they hinted at an underlying truth."
Though the USA has made significant strides in soccer, the country is still best known for its top export -- goalkeepers. From Brad Friedel to Kasey Keller to Tim Howard and his backup, Brad Guzan, Americans remain very good when it comes to using their hands.
The Americans have only one standout player on the global stage, Howard, whom coach Jurgen Klinsmann considers among the world's top five goalkeepers.
"Timmy is one of our big shots," Klinsmann says. "He's our leader. He keeps everybody together. We need him right now. In a World Cup, if you want to go far, you need one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and we have that one."
Today in Salvador, the city of salvation, in an elimination game against Belgium, Howard needs to make huge saves for the Americans to advance to the World Cup quarterfinals.
The Red Devils are full of stars from big clubs around the world, from Atletico Madrid to Manchester City to Bayern Munich to Chelsea.
Playing in the English Premier League since 2003, first with Manchester United and now for Everton, Howard has competed with or against almost a dozen of Belgium's big shots. That's why Klinsmann has relied on Howard for reconnaissance.
"He's not just a goalkeeper; he's also a scout," Klinsmann said Monday.
From his Tourette's to his tats, from his clean sheets to his bald head, Howard has distinguished himself on many fronts. Now he hopes to match Friedel's performance in 2002, when the goalkeeper helped carry the Americans to the quarterfinals.
Howard has 103 international appearances and 55 wins, both U.S. records for his position. His legacy is secure. A trip to the quarterfinals would boost it considerably.
Besides his leadership and athleticism, Howard has separated himself from others in this tournament even when he's faltered. "Even when he makes a mistake, he recovers from it," says Keller, now an ESPN analyst. "He'll make a big save to pull himself out of a mistake."
Howard has steadied an inexperienced backline through lineup changes and gaffes.
"One of Tim Howard's biggest qualities is his communication," defender Matt Besler says. "He gets the best out of everybody. Everything starts with him. The organization, the confidence; he's talking to us almost too much, it feels like. But it's great. I tell him, I never want him to stop talking."
Defender Omar Gonzalez made his first World Cup start against Germany with the comfort of a security blanket behind him. "In case someone does get in behind us, I have a pretty good faith that he will get a hand on it or something to be able to make a big save," Gonzalez says.
At 35, Howard would be considered geriatric if he played another position. As a keeper, he's at his peak. So is he top five? Howard lowers his head and laughs.
"I don't know. I don't want to get caught up in that," he said. "It doesn't matter to me; that's just opinion. I feel like I'm playing well. At 35, I feel as fit as I've ever been, as strong as I've ever been. I'm seeing the game at a slower pace, which helps, the game slows down. That's all that's important to me. Where I match up at the end of the day, that's just opinion."
Howard casts his vote for Belgium's Thibaut Courtois. "Arguably he's making a case for being in the top three goalkeepers in the world, and he's so young. I enjoy watching him play. I think he's been exciting. I love watching good, top goalkeepers."
Courtois, 22, played last season for Spanish titleholder Atletico Madrid.
Pedigree matters. And it doesn't. Players on the big clubs get better by consistently competing against top talent. But sometimes a team with a few stars can win.
"Can we on a special day or in a special time period, like now during the World Cup, do extremely well? Yes, I believe so," Klinsmann says. "We're going to get everything out of these guys that we can. Believing also that you can compete, because you can. ... Can we do it? Yes, we can."
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