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Tim Howard reflects on USA-Mexico rivalry, praises Zack Steffen as USMNT goalkeeper

Howard was honored in front of a robust crowd at MetLife Stadium before the USMNT played Mexico.

Apr 21, 2018; Sandy, UT, USA; Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard (1) walks off the pitch after being ejected during the first half against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium. (Russ Isabella/USA TODAY Sports)

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – This has always been home for Tim Howard.

And on Friday evening, prior to kickoff of the United States men’s national team’s friendly against Mexico, Howard – who grew up less than 40 miles away in North Brunswick – was honored by U.S. Soccer in front of a robust crowd at MetLife Stadium.

Howard, a former Central Jersey Cosmos and New York/New Jersey Metrostars product who is retiring at the end of the current Colorado Rapids season, received a framed U.S. jersey bearing his name and the number 121 — a reference to his number of international appearances — as a commemorative video played on screens around the stadium.

The pregame ceremony, which also included a photo-op with U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro, is part of the federation’s new initiative to “acknowledge outstanding achievement” and formally honor men’s or women’s national team standouts upon their retirement from professional soccer.

The criteria is to have earned at least 100 caps and appeared on at least two world championship rosters, including World Cups and Olympic Games.

“Anytime I’m in New Jersey, it feels fitting, you know? This is where it all started for me: an amazing upbringing both on and off the field,” Howard told reporters inside the MetLife Stadium press box. “So, yeah, I like coming back, and it seems like the fact that it’s going to end here is pretty cool.

“I was humbled. … The New Jersey element, the USA versus Mexico element – it’s very special.”

Howard, 40, represented the U.S. in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups. His 15 saves against Belgium in the Round of 16 of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is the single-game tournament record. He also holds multiple USMNT goalkeeping records, including most games (121), starts (119), wins (62) and World Cup appearances (8).

When asked about his favorite memories of playing Mexico, Howard mentioned all the times the Americans won, especially the program’s first, and so far only, victory at the Estadio Azteca, which came in 2012.

“Love, hate, passion,” Howard said of the rivalry. “I feel like you all know all the two-nils in Columbus, those are the more special ones. I can’t even imagine the nerves. I stayed away from the players [tonight]. I don’t want to see any of them, because you know, the week of USA-Mexico is incredible.

“I don’t want to be around those guys when they get ready for battle because for me this is one of the two biggest games you’ll ever play in as a U.S. player.”

One player Howard singled out before kickoff was Zack Steffen, who so far has emerged as the Americans’ next starting goalkeeper. Steffen, who left Columbus Crew SC last winter for Manchester City, has since joined Germany’s Fortuna Düsseldorf on loan.

Steffen is 24 years old, nearly the same age Howard was when he left for Manchester United.

“I think he’s going to be great,” Howard said of Steffen. “I hate to say that now, because it’s putting a lot of pressure on him. … I think he can handle it. Talent wise, he’s second to none.

“You know, I looked up to two of the greatest goalkeepers in the world when I was a kid. And it was Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel, and I desperately, desperately wanted to wear that shirt because they did. I wanted to break the records, and I did. And, you know, I think the kid out there tonight will hopefully break mine.”

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