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Connections between Tim Howard, Nelson Rodriguez run deep

Tim Howard, seen here with Bastian Schweinsteiger, has deep ties to Fire president and general manager Nelson Rodriguez. | Courtesy of Chicago Fire Soccer Club

Nelson Rodriguez won’t say he had a big role in Tim Howard’s illustrious career. Yet the Fire president and general manager happened to be there for some of the key moments of Howard’s ascent.

“Everything that Tim has attained, he has earned,” Rodriguez said. “He’s earned it through single-mindedness, through passion. I’m proud of him.”

On Saturday, Howard and the Colorado Rapids will visit the Fire (noon, ESPN+). Howard, who’s retiring at the end of the season, is making his last trip as an active player to the Chicago area.

In a phone interview with the Sun-Times, Howard recalled a conversation with Rodriguez at a youth soccer tournament about whether Howard would go to college or turn pro. Howard said he was joining MLS, and Rodriguez told him it was a great decision, adding that if he ever needed anything, he could reach out.

“He was someone who looked out for me at a young age,” Howard said. “In terms of any time there was a big decision, he was in and around those type of decisions.”

But their connections go deeper than that discussion and sharing New Jersey roots.

One of Howard’s goalkeeping mentors is Tim Mulqueen, Rodriguez’s closest friend. Then an assistant coach at Rutgers alongside Rodriguez, Mulqueen started a goalkeepers program. One of the attendees was a 12-year-old Howard, who stood out for his athleticism, courage and comfort with the ball.

In 1998, Mulqueen was the goalkeeping coach of the MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls), and Rodriguez was an executive with the club. Rodriguez, with fellow MetroStars executive and now International Champions Cup head Charlie Stillitano, signed an 18-year-old Howard to a Project-40 deal because the goalkeeper wasn’t yet eligible for the draft.

By 2003, Rodriguez had joined the MLS league office, and Howard emerged as one of best young goalies on the planet. Manchester United and famed manager Alex Ferguson came calling, and Rodriguez was part of the negotiations that brought Howard to one of the most popular sports teams in the world.

“I keep my circle very tight, and I only put very trustworthy, stand-up people in it,” Howard said. “Certainly, Nelson is one of them. He’s always had time, he’s always been a man of his word, someone who I trust and respect.”

The feeling is mutual.

Rodriguez said Howard and his rise represent the rise of MLS and the U.S. becoming a soccer country. Rodriguez called Howard a “figure for history” and said he’s an American legend in the sport, with his 16-save performance against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup the punctuation.

“Looking at him, it’s proof of the dream becoming reality,” Rodriguez said. “Not just for him, for all of us who had a sliver of a similar dream.”

NOTE: After the Fire game, the Red Stars will host Portland at 2:30 p.m. as part of a doubleheader at SeatGeek Stadium.