Joe Willis was, as D.C. United coach Ben Olsen worded it, a "question mark."
Until Aug. 13, the rookie goalkeeper had not seen a single competitive minute for United. In fact, the third-stringer rarely made the substitute's bench. Even his playing time in reserve matches was sparing.
But starter Bill Hamid received a red card against Toronto FC the week before, and backup Steve Cronin struggled off the bench. So the coaching staff took a gamble and inserted the University of Denver product for United's match against the Vancouver Whitecaps two weeks ago.
Willis delivered. His shutout performance included a handful of crucial saves, and D.C. rolled to a 4-0 win.
"You throw a rookie goalkeeper in there, and you never really know," Olsen said. "But we had a sense he was a gamer, and I think he likes the lights."
Although Hamid returned to action last week, he suffered a hamstring strain in his first game back. Re-enter Willis, who made his second start in a 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City on Sunday.
With United (7-7-10) preparing to face the Portland Timbers (9-12-5) on Saturday at RFK Stadium, the 23-year-old is again poised to backstop his club with Hamid's status uncertain. When August began, Willis probably was the most anonymous player on the roster. As it comes to a close, he's now United's anchor between the posts amid a frenzied postseason race.
"It's been a pretty hectic couple of weeks," Willis said.
United selected Willis in the third round of January's SuperDraft under the recommendation of assistant coach Chad Ashton, who helmed Denver through the goalkeeper's freshman season.
Listed at 6-foot-5, 189 pounds, Willis was considered an enticing but raw prospect at season's start. So with Hamid recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and Cronin out with a broken wrist, United opted to sign goalkeepers coach Pat Onstad — a 43-year-old MLS stalwart who had recently retired — to a short-term contract rather than throw Willis into the fire.
Onstad subsequently started United's first three games until Hamid returned to health, and Willis watched and waited.
"I don't blame them at all for signing Pat," Willis said. "Would I have liked to play? Yeah. But maybe it [wouldn't have been] the best decision to have me play. I can definitely tell I'm a better player now than I was during preseason or even at the beginning of the season."
For most of the year, Willis has been about as far removed from the club as an active, healthy player can be.
Until Willis logged his breakthrough performance against Vancouver, his typical weekend included watching from the mezzanine as his teammates played Saturday night, then showing up for a Sunday morning reserve game in front of a few hundred fans, only to never get off the bench.
"Probably the hardest position to be on a team is the third goalkeeper," Onstad said. "You don't get the minutes you need to help you improve. It's tough standing on the sideline, but he's got that mentality where he just wants to improve himself day in, day out, and that's how you have to approach it."
Even though back spasms sidelined Willis for United's 1-1 draw at Chicago on Aug. 18, he was summoned to Kansas City after Hamid went down in that contest and again got the nod over Cronin. While the one goal he allowed proved to be decisive, Willis came up with some timely stops to keep his side in the game.
Willis may have been an unknown quantity just a few weeks ago, but it hasn't taken long for him to earn the team's trust.
"You wouldn't be able to tell" he's a rookie, center back Brandon McDonald said. "He brings a calmness to our back line. You look back there at him and he's confident."
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