When D.C. United drafted Joe Willis late in the third round of the 2011 MLS Draft, the fan base gave a collective "meh." Having a third string goalkeeper isn't even all that necessary in MLS. That's what the goalkeeper pool is for. With Willis under contract, we thought we had only a slight upgrade over the unnamed MLS Pool Goalkeeper. We thought we had someone who was maybe capable enough to provide backup for Steve Cronin in those rare instances when Bill Hamid was injured or unavailable.
We look at Willis much differently now.
It didn't take long in 2011 for Willis to climb above Cronin on United's depth chart to be United's No. 2 goalkeeper, and now Willis is even suddenly competing with Hamid to be the top choice overall. If you say you saw this coming back in January 2011, you're lying.
Since Hamid departed D.C. to join the U-23 U.S. National Team last month, Willis has clearly stated his case. With his imposing 6'-5" frame well-positioned at every moment, Willis made some fantastic saves against FC Dallas to help give United a resounding landmark victory at RFK Stadium just over a week ago, and also presided over two shutout draws against the Vancouver Whitecaps and Seattle Sounders. His defense had a lot to do with those clean sheets, but allowing just one goal in 270 minutes is damn good.
Its playoff time in the NHL. Ask any hockey fan if it's a good idea to pull a hot goalie.
Despite United earning four goals from the run of play in that game against Dallas, head coach Ben Olsen named Willis as his Man Of The Match. We talked with Willis in the locker room after the game about what that means to him. "Its definitely great," Willis said to the gathered reporters. "Its definitely a confident boost and definitely helps me going forward, working hard knowing that the coach has my back. ... I'm definitely confident in myself but I know to keep a level head and not be overwhelmed with it I guess."
And then there's Hamid, whose status has soared to such heights as to earn the presumptuous title of Tim Howard's Heir Apparent. For as much praise as we can give Willis for his performance in his four starts with United this season, Hamid deserves equal praise for keeping Sporting Kansas City scoreless for 90 minutes in the opener. Don't forget just how impressive he was in that game. He entered the season as the clear No. 1, and he's done nothing to lose that job. At least nothing while wearing a D.C. jersey.
Hamid reportedly returned to full training at RFK again this morning following his recovery from a foot injury suffered while on Olympic Qualifying duty. In a conversation with Steven Goff of the Washington Post earlier today, Olsen elected not to answer the goalkeeper question directly. "What would you do?" he said. "There's a lot of [difficult decisions]. It's not just the goalkeepers; there are a lot of guys who deserve to be on the field. ... It's a nice problem to have. It certainly is a little bit different than the last couple of years, when you felt like you didn't have great choices."
Either choice would be a good one, but a choice must still be made. Hamid or Willis? Willis or Hamid? Andrew Dykstra? Who? When we talked to Dwayne De Rosario following the Dallas match, the reigning MLS MVP echoed Olsen's thoughts on the difficult decision that is looming for the team. "Happy to have him on board and he's a great keeper," DeRo said about Willis. "Its a good problem we have right now. All three of our keepers are very good right now. We saw Joe coming up with some big big saves."
Both players are capable of making those saves. Both players are worthy of being MLS starters, but only one will be an MLS starter this week. Assuming both players are 100% healthy, who would you prefer to see starting in goal on Saturday against the New England Revolution in Foxboro?