RECIFE, Brazil — Tim Howard rarely makes it through a game without accepting multiple celebratory embraces from relieved American teammates.
It happens almost every time the U.S. goalkeeper launches his 6-foot-3 frame to make a spectacular save — diving, leaping or even punching the ball away.
There were several such moments Sunday in a 2-2 tie World Cup group game against Portugal, and the Americans are counting on more of the same when they face three-time champion Germany today.
Howard, 35, will reach a milestone in the process. His 103rd international appearance passes Kasey Keller for the most by an American keeper.
Not that it's on Howard's mind with the Americans trying to reach the knockout stage of consecutive World Cups for the first time. The Americans were in position to advance Sunday before they surrendered a goal in the fifth minute of stoppage time. When Varela's header sailed into the net off a cross from two-time world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, Howard put his hands on his head and sighed.
"Football's cruel sometimes. It ebbs and flows," said Howard, who has seven saves in two games. "We try and take every result as it comes. Our training sessions have been light and lively. We've got a great chance in the 'Group of Death,' they say, to go through and advance, so we're excited. I think we had one foot in the door, so there's a small bit of disappointment."
One of the best keepers in the world and a star with Everton of England's Premier League, Howard had 15 shutouts — one behind Chelsea's Petr Cech and Arsenal's Wojciech Szczesny — in 37 league matches this season.
And a back four of U.S. defenders that was scrutinized ahead of this World Cup for its inexperience is quick to hug the big man.
"One of Tim Howard's biggest qualities is his communication," central defender Matt Besler said. "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. Even if I know what to do, he's still telling me what to do."
Portugal peppered him with shot after shot from every angle.
Despite the near miss and late disappointment, coach Jurgen Klinsmann has all the confidence the Americans will be ready to go again today against his home country. He helped West Germany win the 1990 World Cup then coached Germany to a semifinal run on home soil in 2006.
"That's what a World Cup is all about. You live through those emotions positively and negatively," Klinsmann said. "You've just got to kind of cross it off then move on. And we're going to move on quickly."
There is some thought this could be Howard's World Cup. He signed a two-year contract extension with Everton in April that takes him through 2018 and a likely finish to his career with the club. Backup Brad Guzan is the U.S. No. 1 keeper in waiting.
Before Howard contemplates his future with the U.S. team, he hopes to extend this run.
"We've given ourselves every chance to advance, so we're optimistic," Howard said. "We're pretty much right where we wanted to be when we started this whole process. We wanted to be going into the last game feeling like we have a chance. And we do."