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After injury layoff, Bill Hamid is back at his best

After missing the opening 12 games of the 2016 season, Bill Hamid has reclaimed his spot as the best goalkeeper in Major League Soccer

At the conclusion of 90 minutes and stoppage time on Friday in Utah, D.C. United - somehow, some way - walked off of Real Salt Lake's home field with a point. By measurable statistics, United had been bossed around for the entirety of the game, only for midfielder Jared Jeffrey to power a header home in stoppage time for a 1-1 draw. But none of that was possible without some miraculous saves from United’s Bill Hamid.

Hamid had his best performance to date since returning from offseason knee surgery, denying RSL time after time. His biggest saves came in the first half against Yura Movsisyan (an acrobatic double save) and against Olmes Garcia, who was in behind the defense, just moments before Jeffrey’s equalizer.

Movsisyan was left impressed after the game. "He is one of the best keepers in the league," Movsisyan said after the game. "It is definitely tough, you know he is a big boy, covers a lot of the goal and does well on the ground. So props to him."

Hamid’s teammates, were equally impressed.

"Unbelievable performance. You can’t say enough about him when he saves three or four clear-cut chances and keeps us in a game like that," Lamar Neagle said after the game. He’s the only reason we came out with a point. Having a staple like Bill back there gives you a ton of confidence."

But while it might be fun to watch Hamid stand on his head, manager Ben Olsen would prefer not having to use Hamid to earn points. It was something that happened time after time in 2015, but with Hamid out during the spring United had not been so reliant on goalkeeping to earn points.

"You’re going to need that on the road. We have three more road games [in a row], and there will be times where we have to grind things out," Olsen told reporters on Tuesday about Hamid’s performance against RSL. "Some guys are going to have to step up, and bail the next guy out. We’d like to not use him as much as we did on the weekend, but it’s a nice card to have when you’re under the gun."

Still, United fans have grown accustomed to seeing this level of play from Hamid over the years. Signed as the team’s first-ever homegrown player in 2009, Hamid has been steadily climbing the ranks within the Black-and-Red and MLS alike. He was the youngest keeper ever to win a league game back in 2010, and in 2014 was rewarded for an outstanding season with the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award.

For Hamid, his biggest takeaway from the game against RSL was the impetus of the team to fight on late in the game, when all might have seemed lost, to earn a point. His focus, rather than being focused on his individual performance, instead turned to the team's overall mental strength.

"I think the bigger picture helps us move forward and progress. I think the bigger picture is the fact that we stayed focused on the match. And even though we were taking a lot of pressure, a lot of heat, we kept pushing forward," Hamid told reporters on Tuesday. "We pushed forward, and got that goal late. That mentality is going to help us down the road, in terms of continuing to push forward when we’re not having the best game. Continuing to try to get results in tough places."

Hamid's understanding of the bigger picture might be the single biggest growth in his game since he came into the league in 2009. Gone are the "you can't hold us back" days after getting sent off against the New York Red Bulls in the 2012 MLS playoffs, when Hamid's emotions were on full display. Now there's a Hamid that commands the field with a demanding demeanor, one that not only holds him, but his teammates responsible for their performance on the field. Hamid still gets worked up on the field, as does every keeper, but there's a sense that he understands how important it is to maintain control.

And that leadership, demanding higher standards from everyone around him, has shown through in his five games this season. With Steve Birnbaum away for international duty for the first four games, and on the bench last weekend, Hamid has seen some instability in front of him. Bobby Boswell and Kofi Opare have gotten most of the starts since Hamid returned, but Jalen Robinson had to step in for a suspended Boswell against the New England Revolution.

Despite that, Hamid and his defense have managed to hold teams to three goals in five games. That includes three shutouts - two of which were on the road - has given United eight points in those five games. Not the greatest output, but a good tally when you consider that United have scored just four goals themselves in the same five games.

"It’s difficult," Hamid said of keeping continuity with the center back pairing changing from week to week. "We have four very good center backs. One [Birnbaum] national team player. One young [Robinson], in terms of MLS experience, but very energetic and youthful. Kofi is experienced, and Bobby is experienced. It’s an interesting set of center backs we have, and I feel bad for two of them, because two of them aren’t going to get the game reps that they deserve. That’s part of sports."

Now, the biggest hurdle that remains now in Hamid’s career is getting back with the national team. The knee surgery and recovery and rehabilitation meant that Hamid didn’t return to action until after the rosters for the Copa America had been set. It would have been unrealistic for Hamid to be named to that team, even with the state of keepers for the team in flux.

But, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal at the beginning of June, before the start of the Copa America, USA national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann made a critical remark of Hamid and some of the other players that haven’t yet panned out. Asked how some of the young players were coming along, Klinsmann said:

What is going on on the goalkeeper front? Tim Howard is 37. [Brad] Guzan is 31. Nick Rimando is 36. Where is our next wave? ​Holy moly. We lost that generation that didn’t qualify for [the] London [Olympics]. What happened to the Bill Hamids, the Sean Johnsons, the Brek Sheas, the Mix Diskeruds? You go through and make your own judgment. You go through it and we get back to our old thing where we say, ‘Hey guys, talent is only half of it.’

Yes, Hamid has had several injury setbacks over the course of his career. In 2012, when he missed a couple of games early on in the season, Hamid came back and had trouble regaining his spot from Joe Willis. Last year, Hamid rushed back from wrist and knee surgery to get back on the field for the Black-and-Red. That, combined with joining the national team in November, going over to England to train, and coming back to prepare for January’s national team camp, was apparently involved in the surgery Hamid underwent this offseason.

But the twice-capped keeper should be back in the national team picture now that he’s healthy, saving United week in and week out. There are no friendlies until the next round of World Cup qualifiers, which means Hamid might be hard pressed to move himself into the number one position for those games. But if his current form continues, there’ll be no reason to keep him out of the red, white, and blue.