Playoff start latest chapter in wild 2012 for DC's Willis

HOUSTON – Emotions were running high when Joe Willis pulled on his gloves and trotted out under the lights at Red Bull Arena on Thursday night.

D.C. United starter Bill Hamid had just seen red in the 72nd minute for taking down Kenny Cooper in the box, a call that had the 21-year-old dropping to his knees, gesticulating and demanding an explanation from both the head and assistant referee.

So in came Willis, who hadn’t played an MLS minute since July but promptly dove low to save Cooper’s second attempt after his first try was called back for encroachment.

On Sunday, the pressure will be just as high on the second-year netminder, albeit for 90 minutes instead of 18, as an undaunted Willis steps between the pipes for a suspended Hamid against Houston in the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals at BBVA Compass Stadium (4 pm ET, NBCSN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).

“It’s easy to have faith in your goalkeeper when he comes in and makes a save like that. The stage isn’t going to be too big for Joe,” Olsen said. “… It’s just a tough position. You don’t just sub goalkeepers in, so they sit for long periods of the season. It’s impressive for a field player. It’s not a mentality that I understand. That’s what ‘keepers are bred to do.”

In fact, Willis had already done it this season, well, almost.

Back in July, Hamid saw red against, as coincidence would have it, the Dynamo for taking down Mac Kandji. Willis stepped up in a similar situation – scoreless game, PK looming – but Brad Davis stepped up to the spot to score the first of four unanswered Houston goals.

And while he hopes things go a bit differently this time around at BBVA, Willis says he’ll be prepared as always come kickoff on Sunday.

“Absolutely, I feel ready. I always feel ready,” he said. “The thing about being a goalie is only one person gets to play at a time, but something can happen in a split second and you’re thrown in there so you always have to be ready.”

It helps that Willis has started nearly a third of D.C.’s games this season, as Hamid battled injury and inconsistent form early on while also missing games for national team duty.

The 6-foot-5 shot stopper started 10 games for Olsen, most at the beginning of the season, giving him a solid foundation to draw upon against the Dynamo.

Now he’s just got to perform. Not that he’s worried about that. Olsen’s faith seems to have percolated throughout the whole team, Willis included.

“It’s unbelievable experience,” Willis said. “… We don’t have a lot of playoff experience so it’s an exciting time. We have on our eyes on the prize. We aren’t taking like, ‘Oh, we made it to the playoffs and that’s it.’ No, we want to win this thing. And we think we can.”