WASHINGTON – The change was subtle, yet significant.
During D.C. United’s Tuesday morning training – the club’s first since a humbling 4-0 loss to Houston on Sunday – goalkeepers coach Pat Onstad warmed up with Joe Willis.
Onstad usually executes agility drills with United starter Bill Hamid while Willis works with third-stringer Andrew Dykstra. But Willis and Onstad were paired on this, another hot, humid D.C. morning, as the 23-year-old ’keeper will spend the week preparing to start Saturday’s match against the Columbus Crew by virtue of Hamid's automatic suspension for his red card in the 17th minute of Satuday's loss.
WATCH: Willis with huge save on Davis
Luckily for United, Willis arguably is the most capable backup in the league.
“Obviously, I was playing a lot toward the beginning of the year, so I’m used to the feeling of going into a weekend starting,” Willis said. “Even when you’re not starting, you’ve got to have that mentality in case something happens like it did. There really won’t be too much change in my mentality this week.”
Willis started nine of D.C.’s first 10 games this season when Hamid was playing with the US Under-23 national team in Olympic qualifying. He’s one behind Seattle’s Bryan Meredith for games started by a backup, with nine.
And Meredith was driven into his starting role when Michael Gspurning injured his hip in the seventh game of the season. The next-closest true backup in the league has started four games and on five clubs, the backup ’keeper hasn’t played a minute.
“It’s probably a different situation than most teams where they have a veteran guy and then a young guy backing up, but we have two young guys,” Onstad said. “I think the good thing about having two young guys is they bounce back quickly. They have short memories, which is great.”
Thrust into Sunday’s game after Hamid was carded, Willis allowed four goals, but two were on penalty kicks and on another he had little to no chance at a save. He even guessed right on the first PK, but Brad Davis still was able to sneak it by his outstretched hands.
“It was a new experience for me,” Willis said of entering a game cold. “Every goalie, whenever you get four goals scored on you, you’re always thinking that you could have done better. It’s hard to say, but I think I did OK.”
In 882 minutes this season, Willis has allowed 18 goals on 47 shots, and has kept two clean sheets. He has a record of 4-3-3 and a 62 percent save percentage.
Coupled with the fact that D.C. are coming off a deflating loss is the fact that Saturday’s game is their last before a 13-day break between MLS matches.
“We definitely need to go in with a must-win mindset,” Willis said. “Especially since we don’t have another game for the next few weeks after that. We don’t want to go into the break with two losses.”