Continuing the busiest offseason of any non-expansion MLS side, DC United announced this evening that new assistant coach Pat Onstad will also be new goalkeeper Pat Onstad. The move was somewhat forced on the club after Steve Cronin broke his wrist in training and will miss the next eight to ten weeks. United's other potential starter, Bill Hamid, is also not ready to play as he continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery - Hamid hopes to get real minutes in the upcoming Carolina Challenge Cup, but is not yet training at 100% - and DC was clearly in a bind between the sticks.
Onstad retired this offseason after an outstanding career with the Houston Dynamo (and the old San Jose Earthquakes). No MLS keeper has won more trophies in this country than Onstad, who started for three MLS Cup winners (2003, 2006, and 2007) and a Supporters Shield champion (2005). He also won the US Open Cup and two A-League championships with the Rochester Rhinos (back when they were the "Raging Rhinos"). Internationally, Onstad has 57 caps for Canada, and was on their 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup-winning side. He has won MLS's Goalkeeper of the Year award twice, in 2003 and 2005; in both of those seasons, he was also named to the MLS Best XI.
Read on to hear some thoughts on this development:
Cronin's broken wrist put United between a rock and a hard place. With Hamid likely short of being 100% for opening day as it is, Cronin's injury left the team with no viable options for our first few games (with all due respect to Chase Harrison and Joe Willis). Unlike last season, where San Jose managed to snag Jon Busch after Chicago made the ridiculous decision to waive him, there wasn't a truly reliable goalkeeper floating around out there. Ben Olsen and co. were looking at either trying to sign a 2nd division keeper, finding a goalkeeper from abroad, or making a trade for an accomplished MLS backup. None of these were palatable options, especially since the team would later find itself with three keepers fighting for one job a few weeks into the season.
I'd say signing Onstad was pretty much the only choice the club had. The Black-and-Red have already stated that Onstad's deal is short-term only. It's worth noting that the length of the deal has not been specified, and as Kyle McCarthy notes, this may involve some sort of obscure MLS loophole. Steve Goff says that Dave Kasper indicates that there isn't even an MLS procedure in place for this kind of move, so DCU may be adding to the league's already byzantine set of procedures.
As for how this impacts us on the field, I think it's a positive. Regular B&RU readers will already know that I'm not particularly confident in Cronin, and while Hamid has a sky's-the-limit kind of future, he can only be so good right now. Onstad's experience and ability to position his defenders are assets that are unmatched in MLS, and were key reasons why he could continue starting for so long after most players would have retired. No matter who ends up starting in the back for United, the group will be young and also new to each other. Having an old head behind them will help minimize the amount of confusion in the ranks.
Around the internet, I've seen a couple of remarks from Houston fans saying that Onstad was slipping as a goalkeeper. While I'd agree that he's not as good as he was back in the mid-2000s, I also saw plenty of Dynamo games last season. Their big issues defensively were players losing their 1v1 battles and a lack of support from the midfield (Lovel Palmer, other than his long-range shooting ability, is no Ricardo Clark). Onstad might not have looked like Peter Schmeichel last season, but he also wasn't giving up goals like Troy Perkins was for us.
Is this a stroke of brilliance? No. It's merely a reasonable solution to a bad situation. Onstad is not going to be the final piece of the puzzle. What he offers us is a good stopgap for the time being. This move will help prevent us from starting 2011 on the wrong foot, a la 2010. With such a young team, confidence can be a fragile thing, and starting off well is going to be important for this group to play up to their collective potential.