Tim Howard returns to a new-look Major League Soccer
Tim Howard's return to Major League Soccer -- he's set to make his return on Monday when Colorado face Portland -- comes after a long, successful stay in England, where he played for two of its most storied clubs. Between Manchester United and Everton, Howard made 399 first-team league appearances over the course of 13 seasons. In that span, the New Jersey native lifted himself into the goalkeeping elite and became an American soccer legend in the process.
Now, at age 37, Howard has decided that the final act of his career will take place where his professional life started: Major League Soccer. Moving back stateside and joining the Colorado Rapids means that Howard will get to experience the league for the first time since 2003, when MLS was still in its first decade of existence.
So much has changed in America's domestic league that it would almost be easier to list what isn't different from Howard's time with the New York/New Jersey Metrostars. That's right: Howard has been gone long enough that the team he played for has been operating under a different name -- for more than 10 years.
The Metrostars were purchased and rebranded as the Red Bulls in 2006, three years after Howard's sale to Manchester United. The club also moved into a state-of-the-art, purpose-built soccer venue in Harrison, New Jersey after years of playing in Giants Stadium. The patch of grass (actually, artificial turf) that Howard patrolled for the Metrostars doesn't even exist anymore, since the original Giants Stadium was torn down in 2010 to make way for an updated NFL venue at the Meadowlands.
So, what else is new?
New faces, new places
The addition of soccer-specific stadiums might be the biggest transformation from the MLS that Howard left behind. When he said goodbye to the Metrostars, only the Columbus Crew and LA Galaxy had venues built with only soccer in mind, and Howard never actually played in what was then the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles -- he was transferred six weeks after it opened and before his club made a visit.
In addition to the Red Bulls, FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City are also sporting new names since Howard jumped the Atlantic. The number of teams in the league has doubled, from 10 to 20. And if the now-defunct Chivas USA is included, MLS added more teams during Howard's sojourn than existed in the league when he last played in it.
With Chivas USA sitting at the bottom of the dustbin of American soccer history, a team's entire MLS lifespan -- from birth to inglorious death -- happened between the departure and return of the goalkeeping great.
Money, money, money
Plenty more has changed as well. Back in 2004 -- a year after Howard's transfer but the first year such information was available -- the highest paid player in the league was Kansas City's Josh Wolff at $418,511.
In 2016, according to the MLS Players Union's numbers, 77 players make more than that today. That total includes 20 players making more than a million dollars, with Kaka the highest paid player this season with a salary of almost $7.2 million. Howard himself is benefiting from the rise in salaries at the top end of the scale, as he's set to make $2.575 million on his Rapids contract.
The average player salary in 2004 was $80,862; today, that number is $316,777, in large part because of the giant paydays given to players under the Designated Player rule. The DP rule didn't exist in Howard's first MLS stint, coming into force in 2007 with the arrival of a man Howard just missed playing with at Manchester United, David Beckham.
The increase in money spent on the richest contracts in the league wasn't matched by a similar increase in the lowest salaries, though the league has made a modicum of progress. The league minimum for reserve players has risen from $24,000 in 2004 to $51,500 in 2016, with further increases coming through the CBA agreement signed last year.
Some of the new money is coming from the franchise fees paid by all of those new teams, but there's also the uptick in attendance to thank for the league's stronger spending power. In Howard's last year, the average MLS attendance was below 15,000. A year later, it was just over that number at 15,287. In 2015, it was 21,574, a record and the first time the league was above the 20,000 mark for a full campaign.
MLS and the national team
Back in Howard's days playing in New Jersey, MLS' influence on the national team was at a relative high point. The 2003 USMNT Gold Cup 18-man roster included 13 domestically-based players. In contrast, this year's Copa America team under Jurgen Klinsmann had just nine of 23 players currently under contract with the league. That number is boosted by the influx of returning U.S. internationals, who, like Howard, took the chance to play at home again on big salaries.
The MLS that Howard left in 2003 is not the MLS that he rejoins this summer. That's true not only because of the number of teams and soccer-specific stadiums or the salary stats, but also because of giant leaps forward in the league's professionalism, importance and quality.
The MLS of Howard's early years had the look and feel of an interloper in both the world of global soccer and American sports, and while it may still not be one of the world's elite leagues or America's most popular professional sports operations, it has firmly established roots and a bright future.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.