WASHINGTON – Goalkeeper Joe Willis found out Friday he was about to make his pro debut, and then he went ahead and put together a performance to remember when he got his chance.
The rookie of out of Denver University looked more like an established vet than a newcomer on Saturday, making a couple of game-changing saves to set the table for a 4-0 rout of the Vancouver Whitecaps at RFK Stadium.
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“I can’t speak enough about Joe Willis tonight,” said midfielder Chris Pontius, who scored two goals in the win. “He made a huge save in the first half and even in the second. If he doesn’t make those saves, I think the game changes.”
With No. 1 goalie Bill Hamid out because of a red card suspension picked up against Toronto last week, Willis and Steve Cronin were told at the beginning of the week that they would duke it out for the starting role.
And the 23-year-old Willis seized the opportunity, battling past the established MLS veteran to earn the start before he came up huge in his first pro game.
Willis’s first save came in the 40th minute, the score tied at 0-0. Whitecaps forward Camilo curved a free kick from around 30 yards out that beat the wall but couldn’t fool Willis, who
shuffled his feet and lunged, getting a hand on the ball and sending it off the crossbar.
The rebound set off a melee in front of goal, but Willis was quick to the ball, lunging to grab it and snuff out the threat after a favorable deflection helped keep the visitors from scoring.
“I thought he played fantastic,” DC goalkeepers coach Pat Onstad said. “He had a great game.”
The second big moment came after United took a 2-0 lead, with goals on either side of the half time break. Vancouver left back Jonathan Leathers got free on the flank, and sent in a teasing cross to Eric Hassli. The big Frenchman volleyed a shot that Willis saved, this time with with his feet.
“I actually thought that the one that really kind of sealed their fate was at 2-0, when he comes across and blocks it,” Onstad said. “At 2-1 it’s a new game and they’re back into it.”
After the game, Willis clearly enjoyed the moment, earning a pie in the face from his teammates, as well as numerous congratulations for his efforts. However, he’s not going to rest of the accomplishment for too long.
“It’s exciting. But at the same time, the season’s not over yet,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do. I’ll enjoy it for now, but come Monday it’s back to work.”
Travis Clark covers D.C. United, College and Youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @travismclark.