Unexpected ride continues for DC United rookie Willis

Joe Willis

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WASHINGTON — When the D.C. United coaching staff gave Joe Willis the opportunity to make his first pro start against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Aug. 13, the risk paid unexpected dividends.

The third-round pick from this year’s SuperDraft has shown his mettle in two recent appearances after toiling as the club’s third goalkeeper most of the season, and the DC camp has certainly taken notice.

“You throw a rookie goalkeeper in there and you never really know,” head coach Ben Olsen said. “We had a sense [Willis] was a gamer and I think he likes the lights. The games he’s come in, he’s done very well.”

Willis picked up a shutout in the 4-0 win over Vancouver, and was called on again last Sunday against Sporting KC after first choice goalie Bill Hamid picked up a hamstring strain last Thursday against the Chicago Fire. Willis could see another start on Saturday against Portland (7:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online) if Hamid is unable to make his recovery in time.

But aside from his recent starts and a unique chance to train with the US national team when they played in DC during this summer’s Gold Cup, it’s been an expectedly slow first year as a third-string goalkeeper. He only saw time in a couple of reserve matches, training hard under assistant coach Pat Onstad, alongside Hamid and Steve Cronin, the other backup 'keeper.

Simply put, Willis was content to have caught on somewhere after a successful but certainly not elite collegiate career at the University of Denver.

“I’ve basically come in [to this year] knowing I had to work every day, and I’m happy to be at the club no matter if it’s first string, second string or third string,” Willis said.

And while Hamid is the de facto No. 1 starter when healthy, Willis has shown he can hang as a pro — and is thoroughly enjoying the ride along the way.

“I couldn’t ask for much more,” he said. “It’s been an unbelievable season having a coach like Pat [Onstad] for me as a rookie … the experiences I had, getting to train with the national team, getting to play in a few games, it’s amazing. Couldn’t ask for much more.”

Travis Clark covers D.C. United, College and Youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @travismclark.