Pat Onstad is, by anyone’s measure, one of the all-time great goalkeepers in MLS, a decorated figure whose playing career was dotted with an enviable collection of championships and individual accolades.
But he is quick to point out his role on the D.C. United coaching staff goes well beyond mentoring the team’s talented shot-stoppers. His title is assistant coach, after all, and he makes sure he lives up to that billing.
“I rely very, very heavily on him,” coach Ben Olsen said. “Pat does phenomenal work with the goalkeepers, but he’s a coach too — not just a goalkeeper coach. And he helps out with a lot of decisions with field players.”
On the training field, though, Onstad’s chief responsibility is working with United’s youthful goalkeeping corps of Bill Hamid, 21, Joe Willis, 23, and Andrew Dykstra, 26. Thus far, United (5-3-3) have leaned heavily on Onstad’s pupils to bail out a back line that has experienced its fair share of injury-induced instability.
Willis, a second-year player taken late in the 2011 SuperDraft, performed admirably in nine starts after winning the job from Hamid, who missed several games on U.S. under-23 national team duty. And in his return to the lineup last weekend at Toronto, Hamid made several key saves to help secure the 2-0 win.
“It’s fortunate that we’ve got three good goalkeepers here, guys that are trying to learn and get better at their craft,” Onstad said. “So it’s enjoyable each day to go to work with them and see them improve, and this year it’s been a real strength of our squad.”
For the 44-year-old Vancouver, British Columbia, native, his second season as a coach has been a bit more traditional than his first. Influenced by injuries last year to briefly come out of retirement, Onstad started the first three games of that season for United. He has since returned to strictly a coaching role, though seeing as he ran a marathon this past weekend, he seems set on maintaining the fitness level that allowed him to become the oldest player in league history.
In addition to that impressive statistic, Onstad’s resume includes three MLS Cup triumphs and two Goalkeeper of the Year honors during his eight seasons with the San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo. But all along he had coaching in mind, initially getting licensed more than a decade ago.
“He’s a great goalie coach but a tough goalie coach,” Hamid said. “And that’s what you want, especially being a young guy that has big dreams for himself.”
Added Willis: “He has definitely been a confidence-builder for me. He tells me when I mess up, definitely, but he’s very positive with me. For me, that helps a lot.”
As Onstad acknowledged, he does have the ambition to one day become a head coach. It’s no surprise, then, that he has embraced the on-the-job education presented by his new career.
“For me, it’s just about trying to take in as much as I can,” Onstad said. “It’s about learning. The top coaches in the world, that’s all they’re doing constantly.”
United on Saturday will be the visiting team when the Dynamo (2-3-2) open the league’s latest soccer-specific venue, BBVA Compass Stadium. Seeing as Onstad won two titles in five years with Houston, he likes to think he “played a small part in trying to get that there.”
His image is even a part of the stadium’s decor, featured on one of 16 pillars highlighting club legends. As Hamid observed, however, “Certain guys are great players, have great careers, but they’re terrible coaches.” But in Onstad’s case, he said the move from the field to the sideline has been as smooth as can be.
“He’s made the transition extremely well,” Hamid said. “And that just goes to show the type of guy he is, the knowledge he has of the game and the experience he can bring into a coaching role to succeed and make it look easy. But coaching is not an easy thing.”