The first and last word on D.C. United's 0-0 draw with the Colorado Rapids on Sunday night was and is "Willis", as in Joe Willis. In the midst of one of those joyless MLS games that seem to happen all too frequently when the Capital Club is not playing well, United's backup goalkeeper was clearly its best player on the field, and, along with Rapids' winger DeShorn Brown, one of the two players who stood out from the match. Willis' performance so dominated the narrative for D.C. United on the night that this post should perhaps stop right now. But, to be true to the spirit of our regular "Last Word" column, read on below for more Joe Willis accolades, shout outs, and praise, as well as a question about what this team's objective is for the rest of the season.
(and, if you didn't play #dcubingo on Sunday night, as explained in Martin's "Last Word" post following last week's Seattle game, be on the lookout later this season)
- Steven Goff: "United (2-13-4) was blanked for the sixth time in eight matches (12th time overall) and remained winless on the road with one goal scored. But Willis's gems stymied the Rapids (7-7-6) and provided a refreshing jolt at the conclusion of five games in 16 days. "If I had to give Joe a match rating, it would be 10 out of 10," center back Ethan White said. "He bailed us out a bunch of times.""
- Adam Taylor: "D.C. backup goalkeeper Joe Willis had himself a night to remember. Seven saves - some of them highlight reel worthy, and no goals conceded? That's doing work. With starter Bill Hamid away on Gold Cup duty with the USMNT, Willis stepped in with a Man of the Match performance, bailing out his defense with good positioning and spectacular reaction saves. The not-so-good: everybody else on the field for United. While Colorado put seven shots onto Willis' goal, United mustered just six attempts the entire game, only two of which forced Rapids GK Clint Irwin into saves. There have been matches where United had some statistical superiority to find comfort in, but last night wasn't one of them; Colorado were superior in every aspect of the game, both statistically and aesthetically. Most of Ben Olsen's XI can most charitably be described as invisible."
- Ben Olsen on Joe Willis, via washingtonpost.com: "He has had plenty of nights like this. This isn't a one-off for Joe...We have a lot of faith in him. It's only because he has earned that faith. It's not like we're just giving it to him."
- Ben Olsen, via dcunited.com: "Defensively, it was a game where we hung in. Beggars can't be choosers right now and we'll take the point. There are very few times in my playing career or coaching career where I've come here and gotten a result. It's not an easy place to play so we'll take a positive out of it...Again, offensively it wasn't a great night. That's kind of been who we are. If we're going to get results, we've got to put up zeros, and we did that tonight."
- Joe Willis, via dcunited.com: "This season's been alright. Obviously we aren't doing very well. We're struggling right now. It's not fun. We have glimpses together where we put good football together. We need to have a complete performance for 90 minutes, but all the pieces are there. We have confidence. That's not a problem. It just hasn't been going our way this year."
- Colorado Rapids coach Oscar Pareja on Joe Willis, via dcunited.com: "I thought he had an incredible night."
Colorado will be very disappointed not to have won this game. Chasing a Western Conference playoff slot, the Rapids outplayed the most jury-rigged D.C. United starting lineup we've seen all season, with at least six first choice XI players not starting for the Black-and-Red (Dwayne De Rosario, Nick DeLeon, Bill Hamid, Chris Korb, Alain Rochat, Dejan Jakovic all did not start for various reasons). Despite flashes of speed, explosiveness, and excitement from DeShorn Brown, the Rapids were unable to get the win due to Joe Willis' superb saves. In addition to Willis, other young D.C. United players who had a good showing were Ethan White (who made a deft touch in the box of a long Taylor Kemp cross to create one of the team's best scoring chances over the last several games), Kemp, and Casey Townsend.
The Last Word:
Back in April, Ben Olsen was asked at a season ticket holder event what he thought about Bill Hamid going overseas in the future. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Olsen said he thought Hamid would probably go overseas within the next year if he continued "accelerating" like he has in the past. What was surprising, however, was that Olsen went on to say that he had "no worries" about the goalie position because of Joe Willis, and that it was the least of his concerns among all the positions on the team. Additionally, Olsen said Willis is so good he would not be surprised to see him go overseas as well in the next four years or so.
On Sunday night, we saw the Joe Willis that Ben Olsen was talking about between the posts for D.C. United. While Willis hasn't started the majority of matches this year, he has started United's three US Open Cup matches, and in hindsight those have been the most consequential matches of the season so far as the team makes an improbable run for silverware in the midst of a disastrous MLS regular season. With Bill Hamid on US Men's National Team duty for the Gold Cup (the tournament final is on Jul. 28), it's likely Willis will start United's next three MLS regular season matches (Jul. 20 at Chicago Fire, Jul. 27 vs. New England Revolution, and Aug. 3 vs Montreal Impact), as well as the US Open Cup semifinal on Aug. 7 at Chicago. He's earned that opportunity both with his play against Colorado and his strong play in the Open Cup run.
After 19 games played, D.C. United now finds itself with an overall record of 2-13-4 for a total of 10 points. In a sobering development following last week's western road trip to Seattle and Denver, D.C. United's maximum potential point total for the entire season is now 55. That means if D.C. United goes on a 15-match winning streak to end the MLS regular season, they can only earn 55 points, three points less than they earned in the 2012 regular season. With one more loss this season, D.C. United's maximum potential point total will slip below the last Eastern Conference playoff qualifier in 2012, the Houston Dynamo, who had 53 points as the #5 seed.
With D.C. United having no shot at the playoffs this season, what should the goal of this team be over the next four months as the rest of the regular season plays out? Should the team be fighting to win every game possible with its best starting XI week in and week out? Is it time to focus on developing and evaluating young players for next year by giving Kemp, Townsend, Conor Shanosky, and Jared Jeffrey maximum playing time even if they aren't the best starting XI (I'm assuming White has already cemented his role as a starter for the rest of the season)? Or, should the next three MLS regular season matches be viewed as tune up games for the Aug. 7 US Open Cup semifinal, with United's Cup run dictating when the team changes it's philosophy toward the rest of the season? How the front office answers these questions will not only affect who plays in each game, but also potentially the approach to this summer's international transfer window.
What's your opinion of Joe Willis? What should D.C. United's goal be for the rest of the season?