Tim Howard at his Colorado farewell last week. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

In 1997, I heard about this 18-year-old goalkeeping prodigy.

This kid named Tim Howard was standing on his proverbial head making save after save after save for the North Jersey Imperials.

So, I tracked down his coach and asked him about this promising goalkeeper from North Brunswick, N.J. Tim Mulqueen talked about the Imperials’ 2-0 victory over the Philadelphia Freedom in the Pro Division of the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues.

“He single-handedly kept us in the game,” Mulqueen said. “He caught 10 crosses, which is amazing. He made two saves in the upper 90. Their coach on the other bench turned to me and said, ‘This guy is incredible.’ ”

Still, Howard realized he had a long way to go. “I still haven’t mastered it yet,” he said.

Mulqueen discovered Howard at a soccer camp in 1991. He saw something in that 12-year-old.

“He had such a presence in goal,” Mulqueen said. “He was just special.”

So special that there was speculation that Howard would be ready to join a Major League Soccer team next season.

“If I had my choice and if Tim Howard could play in Major League Soccer tomorrow, ” I would throw him out the door,” Mulqueen said. “Since Tim has settled in we’ve been on a tear. He’s lent so much security to our backs, we can go forward and score some goals.”

Playing for the U.S. Under-18 national team at the time, Howard was named the top goalkeeper at the International Tournament of Juniors in France in 1997.

“The full national team is clearly within his grasp,” Mulqueen said.

Needless to say, Mulqueen was right on, on both accounts.

On Sunday, Howard will complete an amazing career for club and country when his Colorado Rapids meet Supporters Shield winners Los Angeles FC and his former coach at the club and national levels, Bob Bradley. The Rapids need a series of result to go their way to book a playoff spot, but the day will be the 39-year-old goalkeepers, regardless. He has played for the MetroStars and Rapids here in the states, for Manchester United and Everton in the English Premiership and of course, guarded the goal 121 times for the U.S. national team.

So, in chronological order, for the most part, here are a five of my game remembrances of Tim Howard through the years and one personal moment:

His pro debut – Aug. 19, 1998

In his first MLS match, Howard made the most of his opportunity when U.S. international goalkeeper Tony Meola sat out a one-game suspension.

During the game-game huddle, Tab Ramos sent the young goalkeeper message:

“This is not the most important game you’re going to play,” he said.

Ramos later told the media: “I just felt he needed to know the team was behind him and let him know we had as much confidence in him as we did in Tony.”

Howard played like a veteran, making five saves in the rain in a 4-1 win over the Colorado Rapids in front of an announced crowd of 10,217 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

When he reached his locker, a piece of paper was taped to his locker:

“Tim. Great Job. Had to Go. Tony Meola.”

Howard’s best save came when he blocked Wolde Harris from point-blank range with three minutes remaining in the match.

“He stepped in in a pressure situation and came up huge,” MetroStars head coach Alfonso Mondelo said. “I think you saw the potential this man has.”

MetroStars finale – July 13, 2003

Howard certainly saved his best for last in his farewell appearance with the MetroStars. With three minutes remaining in extratime, Howard demonstrated why he was chosen to sign with Manchester United, preserving a 3-3 comeback draw with the New England Revolution at Foxborough Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. with an outstanding kick save on Joey Franchino’s shot that Saturday.

Only a day prior, ManU head coach Alex Ferguson called Howard to tell him that his appeal to the British labor board to acquire a work permit in England had been approved. Howard’s moth Esther was born in Hungary, so he applied for a Hungarian passport. But since Hungary wouldn’t be a member of the European Union until 2004, he was still considered a foreigner.

“I was so happy,” Howard said.

On Sunday, Howard flew to Manchester for a physical Monday and then a Tuesday press conference before he returned to the states on Wednesday.

“It’s great for me,” he said. “I will get there and work harder. If I get first team, that’s great. If I get the reserve team, great. I just want to continue to improve myself.

“People don’t get this type of opportunity that is given to me. … I feel fortunate. I feel blessed.”

Howard, then 24, had turned into MLS’ best goalkeeper in less than three full seasons in the nets, earning a $2.2 million transfer fee, which at the time was the second highest in league history (Stern John joined Nottingham Forest for $2.5 million in 1999).

“I grew into a man here,” he said. “I’ve grown into a professional. I’ve learned a lot of things. … There are so many miles to go before I sleep. There is a lot to learn.”

Returning as the conquering hero — July 31, 2003

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson still had some time to name his No. 1 keeper for the English Premier League season, but Tim Howard certainly put his best foot and his hands forward in an effort to win the job at Giants Stadium.

Playing in his first match for United, Howard certainly did not hurt his chances. He was credited with 11 saves, including several key stops, in a 4-1 victory over Juventus.

Howard and United entertained the Giants Stadium capacity crowd of 79,005 — then a record for soccer — at both ends of the field, winning for the third time in as many games on its American tour. The crowd surpassed the 78,972 fans who showed up to watch the United States for the Women’s World Cup opener June 19, 1999.

Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Ole Gunnar Solskjær scored goals, but it was Howard’s performance that raised a lot of eyebrows.

“I thought he was excellent,” Ferguson said. “He showed the attributes we recognized in him before. It was a very good debut for him.

“I was hoping he would get a good debut because it was his hometown.”

Howard was tested with the game only 28 seconds old when Fabrizio Miccoli sent a 30-yard bouncer the keeper had little trouble with. His finest moments came midway through the second half with United nursing a 3-0 lead as Juventus brought on some attack-minded players.

“They told me that if I had a stinker tonight, it would be only one game,” Howard said. “If I played well in the back, it was only one game. You can’t ready too much into it. It’s a good step in the right direction.

The magnificent seven – June 8, 2008

Tim Howard’s heroics in one of the most memorable performances by a U.S. national team goalkeeper helped the Americans to a scoreless draw with top-ranked Argentina at Giants Stadium. Howard was credited with seven saves, all in the opening half in a spectacular game.

“Tonight it was about standing up for ourselves, believing we could get a result,” Howard said. “We stood up to the challenge. It wasn’t always pretty at time. … We did not back down. We stuck a foot in at every challenge and that’s what we are going to need to go forward.”

Howard stood on his head and then some when the U.S. experienced a shaky first half. He denied Julio Cruz four times, including twice on a pair of bang-bang plays in the fifth minute.

“With Argentina, you know they’re going to have their chances, no matter how well you’re going to play defensively,” Howard said. “I made the first save and I felt comfortable.”

A bittersweet 16 — July 1, 2014

As magnificent as he was, goalkeeper Tim Howard was not perfect. If he had been, the United States would be preparing to play Argentina in the World Cup quarterfinals.

Instead, the Americans prepared to go home after Howard, with the help of some of his teammates, held off a relentless Belgium side as much before dropping a disappointing 2-1 extratime loss in the Round of 16 at Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil.

Howard put one of the most brilliant goalkeeping displays in Cup history. He made 16 saves, the most in 48 years, or since records began to be kept at the 1966 World Cup. That extraordinary performance, however, could not wash away the bittersweet taste of defeat.

“We played our hearts out tonight,” he said. “Sometimes you give your best and fight and scratch, and it doesn’t work out. Tonight we gave a valiant performance. It hurts.

“We dreamed. We fell short of our dream.”

Howard, 35, did just about everything in his power he could to keep the USA afloat, whether it was parrying the ball over the net or making one of his spectacular kick saves, probably his best on an onrushing Kevin Mirallas in the 76th minute.

“None of that really matters for me,” Howard said. “That’s what I signed up to do, my face in front of balls. It’s part of the job. It hurts when you lose. Whether you had no saves or 20 saves it doesn’t mean any more to us.”

Center back Matt Besler said Howard played “unbelievably.”

“Tim played tonight just phenomenal, was outstanding,” U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “He kept us a long time in this game. You can just give him the biggest compliments in the world.”

After surviving a barrage of Belgian shots — they outshot the USA, 38-14 — the Americans finally cracked in the two 15-minute periods.

Ironically, Howard was done in by an Everton teammate — forward Romelu Lukaku, who replaced Divock Origi at the start of extra time and who set up the first goal and scored the second.

And one memorable trip to Manchester — 2003

This wasn’t a game, just a special trip and interview with Howard in September 2003. I traveled to Manchester to write a major feature about him for the New York Daily News.

It was during an international weekend and many of Howard’s teammates were with their respective clubs in Europe for Euro 2004 qualifying. I ventured to the ManU training complex to have an hour-long interview with Howard.

When Howard first saw me in the interview room, he gave me a big hug. I was one a recognizable person from back home. Then we talked about his new life. A member of the team about 45 days, Howard already was put under the microscope. While strolling with his wife in downtown Manchester, paparazzi secretly snapped a photo of the newlyweds and wound up on the front page of a local tabloid.

“It let me know that people are watching us,” Howard said. “Whether they’re malicious or not, they’re out to put your business in the public eye.

“When you’re at Manchester United, everything is scrutinized, every little thing. There’s pressure to perform every day that is greater [than in MLS]. Pressure can bust pipes or make diamonds. I turn that pressure into something that I can enjoy.”

Howard went from the MetroStars scrambling to find a training site, whether it was at Giants Stadium or at a nearby field or venue. United trained in a $33.5 million state-of-the-art facility in the suburbs. The 108-acre complex boasted 14 fields, hydrotherapy pools, weight rooms and a restaurant where players ate their breakfast and lunch.

Howard and his wife lived in a three-story old Victorian house with a basement — paid for by United — in suburban Wilmslow. “It’s a very posh shopping kind of town,” Howard said. “Cobblestone streets.”

As it turned out, he lived a two-minute drive from fellow U.S. international teammates Brad Friedel (Blackburn Rovers), Claudio Reyna (Manchester City) and Eddie Lewis (Preston North End). “It will be nice to get together for dinner with them,” he said. “What a small world.”

During the interview, Howard wore a Yankees hat backwards. He pointed out he was an Atlanta Braves fan, but a Yank.

The Daily News gave me a full page on the story, some 900 words, which is a monster length for soccer in this country. The interview was great, so great that I left a lot on the cutting room floor. No complaints from me. I knew I had a special story about a special person.

In the early 2000’s, when he decided to tell the local soccer media that he had Tourette Syndrome, Howard might have been a bit apprehensive about announcing it, given not many, if any, sports personalities up until that point had discussed it. He was met with, by and large, an understanding media contingent and many uplifting stories about him.

Through the years, the media always gravitated toward Howard, whether it was his effusive personality or the fact that he could put a soccer game into the proper context and perspective, win, lose, draw or tie-break.

Today, Howard plays his final pro game. Can’t believe he will be hanging them up after all these years.

Glad I was there for the start and many of his fabulous moments and games.

Thanks for the memories, Tim, and good luck in the future!

Here’s a story you might be interested in:

A MEMORABLE DEBUT: No rookie mistakes for 19-year-old goalkeeper Howard