The life of a Major League Soccer goalkeeper, like those across the globe, is wrought with daily trials and microscopic, vigilant evaluation that often results in unfair blame.
For the last nine games of the 2004 season and in the playoffs, Kansas City Wizards goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi overcame the expected critiquing and more on his way to unprecedented personal success that helped push his team to the highest level.
But in 2005, Oshoniyi will carry the burden of a season-long expectation after long-time U.S. national team goalkeeper and MLS player pioneer Tony Meola was not offered a contract renewal by the club at year's end -- largely as a result of Oshoniyi's performances when Meola went down with a persistent Achilles and calf injury on Aug. 14.
"[Bo's strengths] are the same this year as they were last year," said Wizards head coach Bob Gansler matter-of-factly. "What he has in addition to last year is a half of an MLS season of good playing. [It's] important to be confident in what you can do, and once you've done it, you have even more right to that confidence."
The confidence of a goalkeeper is subject to deterioration under the scrutiny of his coaches, teammates, and the media. However, Oshoniyi knows how to navigate the high of being lauded as the hero and the low of being perceived as the goat.
"It's the nature of the beast. This is my 11th season as a pro, so I feel like I have that mental capacity to know you're never as good as you play and you're never really as bad as you play. Keeping that attitude about it usually keeps me OK," said the 33-year-old who started the inaugural MLS season in the net for the Columbus Crew before spending the 1997-'99 seasons in the A-League with three different clubs.
"I know when I've played well, and I know when I've played poorly, so to have someone else say it or write it really doesn't mean much to me," Oshoniyi said. "I try to not let outside influences affect the way I play on the field. As long as I have the backing of my coaching staff and the players around me, I'm pretty confident that I'll get the job done."
It is a tribute to Oshoniyi, Meola, and the rest of the Wizards that they did not permit the sometimes controversial transition from the firmly entrenched Meola to a relatively inexperienced 'keeper to derail last season's drive to prominence in the Western Conference.
Was there any animosity between the two throughout the period while Meola endeavored to become fit?
"I think a little bit just because I think Tony's never been in a position like that as a pro -- having someone come in and actually do well when he went down and seeing that for a pretty good stretch," said Oshoniyi.
"I wouldn't call it animosity. I think there was little bit of uneasiness amongst us. But I thought Tony handled it as a professional, and I thought I did the same and just didn't let our personal differences affect the team and our overall outcome."
Gansler is keenly aware of the pressured pitfalls that can doom any talented 'keeper and has a vivid metaphor to convey the necessary approach.
"He's got to be a riverboat gambler; he's got to have the proverbial nerves of steel. He's going to get beat and if that affects him, then he'll just kill himself," Gansler said. "But you just have to have your composure and be willing and ready to fix your mistakes and work on them in the next week of practice.
"But if that mistake is going to happen in a game, you've got to go beyond it. You've got to say, 'OK, where's the next play?' Bo has a good, composed, but confident nature. We had a couple situations last year where he gave up three goals, or the team gave up three goals, one was in Chicago, one was in Colorado. In both situations, the next game, Bo got shutouts," Gansler said.
A similar situation played out in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs as Oshoniyi and his defense struggled in San Jose as the Wizards went down to a sobering 2-0 defeat in the first leg of the two match showdown. The very next week, another shutout was earned, followed by another in the conference final versus Los Angeles.
Having the right mentality is crucial, but it doesn't mean Oshoniyi has mastered all aspects of being an effective goalkeeper.
"Bo is extremely quick, he's a gifted athlete, he comes and gets his crosses extremely well, vertical leap all of those things are there," said Gansler. "The thing for him is to make good decisions and get the ball out quickly and prudently to the right people at the right time. He can do all of those things; he's done all of those things. He just has to keep doing them."
Oshoniyi's goal for improvement parallels his coach's.
"Distribution, just because I really think Tony was the best, probably in the world, about distributing the ball just because he can do it right-footed, left-footed, and I haven't seen too many goalkeepers around the world who can do that," Oshoniyi said. "My biggest challenge this year is to make sure I'm consistent in my distribution and getting my team out quickly and hitting targets."
When asked about his top personal goal, Oshoniyi replied with the knowledge of past experience.
"To stay healthy. As with Tony last year, once you have an injury or a knock or something like that, [it can be difficult to get things back]," he said. "I think if I can stay healthy throughout the season my talent and experience will take care of itself."
The experience came through as he gave a nod to those he owes gratitude.
"I'm fortunate enough to have the best two defenders in the league with Nick Garcia and Jimmy Conrad back there, so if I can stay healthy and stay confident throughout the season, I think I'll do OK."
To help deal with the inherent pressure in a professional soccer player's life and in life in general, Oshoniyi and the Wizards often engage in some innocuous card playing and prognosticating.
"Poker is our biggest thing. We get along really well, and we play a lot of card games whether it's poker, a game called 22, a new game called Guts. It keeps everybody light when we're off the field," said Oshoniyi. "The NCAA pool is a big thing for us [too], and I'd like to let everybody know that I'm still alive with [two teams] in the Final Four."
It is clear that Oshoniyi will not back down from a whole season of challenge in the Wizards net, a challenge that begins at home versus Colorado Saturday night at Arrowhead.
The only question might be: Will he have an NCAA bracket or a deck of cards stuffed in his shirt during the match?
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.