TORONTO – In a season in which a number of Toronto FC’s young players have emerged as key performers on a rebuilding squad, the rise in prominence of former backup goalkeeper Joe Bendik has to be counted as a major success story for head coach Ryan Nelsen and president & general manager Kevin Payne.
Acquired in an offseason trade with the Portland Timbers, the 24-year-old Bendik has played exceptionally well for Toronto while starting every one of the club’s 23 league matches to date. And given that he played very sparingly during his first year in MLS last season, it’s now clear that someone at Toronto FC did some serious due diligence regarding Bendik’s potential prior to acquiring him.
According to Nelsen, TFC goalkeeping coach Stewart Kerr deserves all of the plaudits for recognizing the potential in the shot-stopper who has become an important part of Toronto’s emerging core of young players.
“It was 100 percent all him,” Nelsen told MLSsoccer.com when asked about the genesis of Bendik’s acquisition and subsequent rise with TFC. “Stewart saw the potential in Joe when it was staring everybody else in the face, but nobody could see it.”
Asked about the success that Bendik has enjoyed to date, Kerr was plain in stating that he hasn’t been the least bit surprised by it.
“When you dig deeper into Joe’s résumé, you learn that he was in the Norwegian first division when he was like 19-20 years old,” Kerr explained. “If you are a young kid who is 19 years of age and you are able to go to Norway and succeed there and become the first-team 'keeper after signing as the No. 3, that tells you something about a player’s mentality.”
If Bendik’s experience in Norway was the first hint about his potential for success in the North American top flight, his play in limited minutes for the Timbers last season only reinforced Kerr’s expectation of how the Huntington, New York native would likely respond when given a more substantial opportunity via a starting role.
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“When he came back to Portland, if you look at the five games he played last season, it was away to Real Salt Lake, Seattle and San Jose and matches like that,” Kerr said. “They were hard games and he always did well in the games.”
Not surprisingly, Kerr sees Bendik as a player with both the requisite talent and the right mentality to one day be a top three goalkeeper in Major League Soccer.
“The sky is the limit for him,” Kerr said. “The potential is there and it is like anything in that it is a progression. This season is his first season in which he has been something of a surprise. A test will come next season when people have a greater expectation.”
As for Bendik himself, the even keeled keeper is taking his current success in stride.
“It’s been good so far,” Bendik said. “I’m just trying to keep it going. There is always room for improvement. I think it was Edwin van der Sar who was 40 years old and said, ‘Every day I come in, I learn something new.' I’m only 24 years old so I’ve got quite some time [ahead of me].”