DC United's trust in Willis' big-game mentality pays off

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WASHINGTON — On August 13, with Bill Hamid serving a red-card suspension, D.C. United's third-string ‘keeper Joe Willis recorded a shutout in a 4-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps in his MLS debut. Eight days later, Willis took a hard-luck 1-0 loss on Aug. 21 against Sporting Kansas City.

The performances proved that Willis can hack it in MLS. But if it weren’t for ties to DC assistant coach Chad Ashton, Willis may have never made his way to the nation’s capital at all.

Willis’ collegiate playing career began at the University of Denver in 2006 — Ashton’s last season in charge of the program before taking an assistant job with DC in early 2007. It was that year as a freshman that the coach first caught a glimpse of Willis’ game-day mentality.

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“There are certain guys who rise to the occasion when the big lights come on and he’s that guy, and you have to see it happen to really trust it,” Ashton said.

Ashton’s inside information on Willis meant that the young goalkeeper was going to be watched closely by DC. The two kept in touch sporadically after Ashton left the Pioneers, and briefly spoke in January at the MLS Combine.

“I talked to [Ashton] before the draft started and he just said, ‘All the best,’” Willis said. “Towards the end of the draft, I saw that he was calling and I was confused at first. ... I talked to him and he said, 'We just traded for the pick.'”

In the third round, United swapped a few picks with the LA Galaxy to add the 23-year-old in order to add depth to their stable of ‘keepers.

“Going into the draft, we knew that he could be a guy that most people weren’t aware of, and the opportunity came where we could make a little move to move up and pick him up,” Ashton said.

Willis then arrived in DC, earned a roster spot in the preseason, and after spending more than half a season at third on the depth chart, made his first start against Vancouver. According to Ashton, fellow coaches Ben Olsen and Pat Onstad were slightly nervous going into Willis’ debut. The former Pioneers coach, however, was confident in his former player. And Willis delivered.

“I’m not surprised by either performance,” Ashton said of Willis’ two starts. “In both games, I thought he did a fantastic job.”

Following Willis’ performances, Olsen paid credit to Ashton for locating the late-round addition.

“Joe’s all Chad,” Olsen said last week. “I can’t take any credit for him.”

With Hamid healthy and no longer facing suspension, Willis will return to the bench for the time being — although he did start Monday morning’s reserve match in Toronto. But in two league games, he’s showed potential to be a reliable backup, and certainly proved the ability to rise to the occasion.

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