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Mr. Rogers On Soccer

Howard's promotion brings memories of a fall from grace.

By Andrew Rogers

(Saturday, May 26, 2007) -- With Tim Howard elevated to the starting job with the United States men, it brings back recollections of the mistake that led to his demise at Manchester United.

I remember the occasion clear as day. Sir Alex Ferguson was left furious by the antics of upstart Porto coach Jose Mourinho and refused to shake his hand after a first-leg European Champions League encounter in Portugal.

Ferguson, the Manchester United coach, had been enraged by the time wasting and diving antics of Mourinho's players, and was disgusted by his gamesmanship. Little did he know at the time that Mourinho considered gamesmanship to be an art form.

United had smashed all comers in the group stages and looked to be the favorite to win the trophy. Against Porto in Portugal, United didn't underestimate the opposition challenge but, as is often the case, it allowed the opposition to play. On this occasion, it cost United a 2-1 deficit heading into the return leg in Manchester.

In the opener, Manchester United took the lead through Quentin Fortune, but typically slack defending (Wes Brown was in the side) allowed Benni McCarthy to grab a double when to all intents and purposes, the game should have been dead and buried. However, given Man United's power in attack such a result was not a worry.

At United's Old Trafford, as was recently witnessed by Roma and Milan, Ferguson's men can beat anyone, and it was certainly expected that the Red Devils could overturn the goal differential that fateful night.

Alas it was not to be that Tuesday in March 2004. All was going to plan for United when it gained an early lead through Paul Scholes. It continued to cruise with Porto offering no discernable threat. The game seemed to have been closed out when Scholes scored a second goal, only for the linesman to rule offside for no apparent reason.

The poor decision put United on edge and Porto grew in confidence, realizing it had weathered the Manchester storm. Now, Porto had to be alert for the usual Manchester defensive blooper that was bound to occur at some point, given Man. U.'s cavalier approach to football.

And so it did. With less than a minute left in the game, McCarthy (now with Blackburn Rovers) lined up a free kick 25 yards from the Manchester goal. Incidentally, it should never have been a free kick but that is all history.

Step forward New Jersey native and growing Old Trafford star Tim Howard to inadvertently change the course of modern football with one of the most significant mistakes in recent times.

Looking back at the footage of the goal and the catalogue of mistakes that led to it, it is clear it could have been avoided. Firstly, it should have been disallowed.

Ruud van Nistelrooy was lined up as the last man on United's wall to block the far corner of the goal where the ball would eventually be shot. Van Nistlerooy was unceremoniously shoved out of the way to give the free kick a clear trajectory on the net. This went unnoticed, which is ridiculous as the "hit" would not have been out of place on the gridiron of American football. The second error was the configuration of the wall alignment by Howard.

There were five players in the wall, but there may as well have been three. It simply wasn't good enough in terms of where Howard placed it. The manner in which the players were lined up would not have blocked a decent free kick.

Worse still was Howard's positioning. From behind the goal, it is apparent he could not see when the ball was being hit. But this was compounded by the fact that the wall isn't blocking anything but his view.

Howard's placement on the line was also suspect. It would appear that he thought the was covering two-thirds of the goal, leaving him to defend one third, but the wall actually covered less than half of the net.

Consequently, when Howard took his place on the goal line, he was a foot away from where he needed to be, which proved to be crucial for Howard and Mourinho's career and the future of England's Premiership.

When McCarthy unleashed his drive, the wall would have blocked it had it not been shoved out of the way. Secondly, because Howard did not provide himself a line of sight on the ball, he did not react well when the shot passed the wall.

From this point, Howard's talent as a shot stopper works against him. His foot work was exemplary, despite the turf slipping out from under him, but his momentum was going in the wrong way. Because the free kick wasn't fired into the upper top corner, Howard found himself in a position to catch the ball rather than tip it away.

Given the lack of time he had to react, Howard didn't appear to analyze the power of the shot, and was forced to parry it into the path of Costinha. The good, bad and ugly of the situation was the ball should not have wound up in the net as Howard arguably did well to stop it

This brings me back to Brown. He simply didn't react, embarrassing for a central defender on the Manchester United payroll with less than 30 seconds remaining in a Champions League knockout-round game.

Howard incredibly managed to shift his entire body weight within a fraction of a second in the opposite direction, and almost got his fingertips to the rebound. If Brown had been anywhere near Costinha, he could have affected his shot and Howard might have been able to produce a second amazing save.

Instead, Costinha tied the game and Porto went on to win the tournament. Howard never regained Sir Alex's trust despite being the first American to win the FA Cup and being named to the Professional Footballers' Association. Howard was slowly marginalized from the first team.

Mourinho rode the championship to become Chelsea coach. Subsequently, he has dug healthily into Ferguson's hegemony.

Howard has certainly played his part in making their duel possible, but he, along with American goalkeeper Brad Friedel and defender Jonathan Spector, did not kick on once at a Big Four team, and they will not be competing in any of the major finals this year.

It is a great shame there will be no Americans on such occasions or representing English clubs in next years Champions League, that is unless you count owners, such as Malcolm Glazer, Bruce Buck, Tom Hicks and George Gillette.

Andrew Rogers, a regular contributor to the United Kingdom's League Paper and Non League Paper, lives in Sunbury on Thames in England. Formerly the director of communications for the Long Island (N.Y.) Rough Riders, he is a UEFA 'B" license coach and plays semi-professionally with Spelthorne FC.

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