AMSTERDAM – With his team one good result away from the Irish second-flight promotion playoffs, Waterford United goalkeeper Chris Konopka is hoping for a fair bit of déjà vu.
The New Jersey native spent last season with Sporting Fingal, who scraped into the postseason before winning promotion. They are now fourth in the top division and battling for a Europa League berth.
Konopka has designs on repeating that path to the League of Ireland with Waterford in second place ahead of their weekend visit to fourth-place Shelbourne, needing just a draw or a loss by third place Monaghan to punch their playoff ticket.
"We've come in with a hot streak, and that helped Sporting Fingal last year," the 25-year-old Konopka told MLSsoccer.com over the phone from Ireland on Wednesday. "The last couple games and training has been fantastic. We're all on a very positive note, and we pulled a win from behind last week."
Not every aspect of this year's closing day set-up is the same – Waterford won't be sneaking in the back door to the playoffs.
"Everyone's buzzing for this game coming up on Saturday," said Konopka. "We don't have to worry about anyone else; the ball's in our court. If we win, we get in. It's a great opportunity, the same kind of opportunity we were all talking about at the start of the season."
[inline_node:321935]Promotion has always been the clubhouse target. Fresh from his experience with Sporting Fingal, Konopka took it upon himself to keep the troops rallied.
"At the start of the season, [promotion] was in everyone's heads," he recalled. "When the results weren't so good, we were still in the top two or three. I kept telling the boys in the dressing room that we just gotta stay focused."
Of course, maintaining that outlook gets tougher as the back-up netminder, which Konopka has been since a June red-card suspension allowed young stable mate Kevin Burns to get hot in goal.
Konopka, though, isn't one to gripe about bad fortunes. He has still played more than twice as many games this season (12) than in the rest of his three pro seasons combined. With the team winning, he fully understands the hot hand approach of manager Stephen Henderson.
"[Burns has] had a good run and the team has gotten some good results, so it's tough for any manager to change the team when things are going your way," said Konopka. "All credit goes to Kevin, he's done well. I've been trying to stay as sharp as I can."
Unfortunately, it appears one unpleasant aspect to the potential déjà vu is that the American will again be in the dugout for the promotion playoffs. He worked four late-season games for Sporting Fingal last year, including an FAI Cup semifinal victory, but lost out as the team won.
"When we got to the playoffs, I was basically playing every other game," offered Konopka. "But the manager had to make a decision and the other guy had more experience. We ended up winning out and getting promoted."
In the dozen starts he's had this term, Konopka says he saw some great strides in his game. As a free agent at season's end, he will continue after as much playing time as he can get – be it with Waterford or elsewhere.
"[The chance for starts is] the reason I came to Waterford, and to Ireland in the first place," stated the former Kansas City Wizard. "At 25, I hope I still have a couple years left. At 25, you're still considered young in this position. But it's been tough to get games because only one person plays at this position."
"When I was playing, I definitely felt like I was growing. At Waterford, I've grown and learned my trade a bit more. I think everything, when it comes to goalkeepers, is about mental maturity. Everyone you come across has what it takes to be a goalkeeper – they have big physiques, are good shot-stoppers and can come for a cross when they're told to."
Konopka never appeared in an MLS game for Kansas City, started only one match in winning the Irish double at Bohemians in 2008 and played just four with FAI Cup winners Sporting Fingal last year. He says the good stretch of games early in the season accelerated his development.
"It's the mental aspect that you learn in game situations that matures you," said the Providence College alum. "Little things that you may not pick up in training, you pick up in games."
Though he's unsure whether Waterford plan to offer him a new deal, Konopka finally got his hands on a Polish passport this summer, clearing all registration hurdles in Europe.
"I finally sorted out my citizenship of Poland, which grants me full [European Union] citizenship, which means there wouldn't be hassles with work permits in any of the leagues around. Hopefully, that can give me more options."
Should the Blues win promotion and all other things are equal, Konopka would consider staying with them in the top flight his preference.
"I still have to talk to Waterford," said Konopka. "I'm really open to anything, but when it comes to Waterford, the club itself has been fantastic. It's a great club, with great tradition. I was in for the first half of the season, so I'd be just as proud as the next guy if we got promoted."
For now, though, all Waterford minds are on Saturday's match and the promotion playoffs that lie tantalizingly behind it. With the top four playing each other and separated by only five points, the entire league is buzzing.
"Mathematically speaking, we can still win the league," Konopka points out. "At the same time, we could drop to fourth place and not get in the playoffs. It's that tight and everything is up for grabs. Hopefully, it can come out positive for us."
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