If there’s one major positive to be found in the fact that D.C. United were held scoreless for the 12th time in 19 matches this season Sunday night at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, it was the play of goalkeeper Joe Willis.
With regular United No. 1 Bill Hamid away on US national team duty, Willis proved why he’s long been regarded by Ben Olsen and his staff as an outstanding ’keeper in his own right in a 0-0 draw against the Colorado Rapids.
“This isn’t a one-off for Joe,” Olsen said. “He’s been steady. We see him in training. We see him day in and day out; his attitude and his approach. I’ve always liked his demeanor, so we have a lot of faith in him. It’s only because he’s earned that faith. It’s not like we’re just giving [the starting job] to him because we like him. He’s had a few games here where he’s been the guy in charge.”
The 24-year-old Willis made a career-high seven saves, helping United earn their fifth shutout of the season in a homecoming of sorts for the University of Denver product.
“I had to request about 22 tickets,” Willis said. “A ton of college friends, my girlfriend’s from here. She lives in D.C. with me now, but her family is all here. It’s pretty cool.”
The clean sheet in front of many familiar faces was Willis’ first in 2013 and fourth of his three-year career. Prior to Sunday’s standout performance, the St. Louis native had yielded two goals in each of his three previous starts, all losses.
Against the Rapids, things were different.
From Willis’ instinctual finger-tip save in the 12th minute to his point-blank stop against Deshorn Brown in the 75th minute, to his composure dealing with Colorado’s 23 attempts on goal, Willis was sensational.
“I kind of messed that up in the beginning,” Willis said of his save on Brown. “I started to come and my communication with Ethan [White] was just bad. He was able to get in behind. Once he did that, I just came out and tried to make myself as big as possible and I was fortunate to get a hand to it.”
At the end of United’s West Coast trip and grueling string of five matches in 17 days across all competitions, it was clear the team was playing with heavy legs. Without captain Dwayne De Rosario, midfielder Nick DeLeon and outside back Chris Korb (who missed his first minutes of MLS action this season Sunday with a hamstring strain) United’s offense again lacked punch in the final third as D.C. haven’t scored a goal from open play in eight matches.
But Willis, aided by some strong play in the center of defense, guided the last-place club reach the 10-point mark ahead of a much-needed bye week.
“He made two very good saves, and I thought the rest of the game he was pretty steady,” Olsen said of Willis. “He handled the box well and he was probably the star of the night for us.”