WASHINGTON – It had been a long wait for D.C. United goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra. Almost four years – 1,267 days, to be exact.
Since October 16, 2010 – when he was named in the starting lineup by former Chicago Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos – Dykstra had found himself used as a backup in MLS, slotted in behind a series of starters at Chicago and D.C.
That changed on April 5, when Dykstra stepped into United’s starting lineup against the New England Revolution, replacing an injured Bill Hamid – who suffered a foot injury while training with the US national team.
“My job the past couple of years has been to be ready for this occasion,” Dykstra told MLSsoccer.com after United’s training session on Wednesday morning. “It’s happened, and now I’m just trying to step in and make the most of it."
Dykstra has performed admirably in two starts, posting consecutive shutouts and playing a major part in D.C.’s return to form. With Hamid still hurt – United’s regular starter has not taken part in a full training session this week – Dykstra should continue to start.
During the long stretch without any MLS action, Dykstra was far from inactive. After playing for the Charleston Battery and leading USL PRO in goals-against average in 2011, he returned to MLS with D.C. United but remained in USL PRO anyway, loaned back to Charleston in 2012 and to affiliate Richmond Kickers in 2013.
Last year, Dykstra was voted Players' Choice MVP in addition to his first USL PRO Goalkeeper of the Year award.
Dykstra said the loan arrangement with Richmond, by which Dykstra trained with D.C. United during the week but played games with the Kickers, is ideal for a goalkeeper.
“What I was doing on loan was the best possible scenario,” Dykstra reflected. “The level of training here [in MLS] is higher than any lower-level league. The mental part of it, that was tough, but at the end, I was getting the best benefit from both sides: getting to train here and getting minutes [at lower levels].”
On Tuesday, both Dykstra and United head coach Ben Olsen were quick to praise the loan spells, crediting them for Dykstra's form.
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Olsen said being tested in front of crowds in games that count in meaningful standings made a big difference in Dykstra's development and is doing the same thing for several players currently on loan.
“I think he’s a testament to this Richmond situation," Olsen said. "We put a lot of stock into guys going down there and getting games. The Reserve League – that was just false. [In the loan games], you have people in the crowd. You have real referees. You have game management. You have all these situations that you don’t always get through training.
"In the end, it’s important for as many people as possible to have an actual season, whether it’s at a lower level or not. Otherwise, what else are you doing on the weekends?”
Feeling that he was ranked behind Hamid and Joe Willis, Dykstra explored overseas options during the offseason, fielding offers from Scotland, Ireland and England. United’s management, he said, kept him from leaving, suggesting that he could be their No. 2 goalkeeper in 2014.
"Although many were surprised when Willis, rather than Dykstra, was sent on loan to Richmond, it has paid off at the first-team level, with D.C. United winning consecutive games for the first time since late in the 2012 season.
The real question at the moment might not be Dykstra or Willis. It might be Dykstra or Hamid? Olsen may have to decide if it makes sense to plug Hamid back into the startling lineup when he returns to full health. In 2012, after United lost Hamid to Olympic qualifying duty and a resulting injury, Olsen stuck with Willis even after Hamid returned, choosing to stay with a hot hand.
“I’m not going to get into that right now,” Olsen said when asked whether he would keep Dykstra in the starting job. “We’ve got three very good goalkeepers. I think we have that luxury – the competition is healthy.”
For now, Dykstra is content to focus on the present.
"I’ve kind of learned not to expect anything,” Dykstra said, smiling. “It’s just the way the game is. At the end of the day, it's going to be Benny’s decision. I’m more worried about practice today and tomorrow.
"Where I’m at when Bill’s healthy, that’s something I don’t have control over. I can’t stress about it."