ORLANDO, Fla. – Joe Bendik will be on the field at the same time as one of his goalkeeping idols this Saturday as Orlando City SC visit the Colorado Rapids for their first meeting with Tim Howard (9 pm ET; MLS LIVE).
At the age of 27, Orlando’s fast-developing shot-stopper is a decade younger than the US national team veteran, who returned to the league in July. While both Howard and Brad Guzan, 31, remain in pole position on the USMNT depth chart in goal, a crop of MLS hopefuls are jostling for position behind the long-serving duo.
According to Lions goalkeeper coach Stewart Kerr, Bendik is firmly among that pack.
The former Toronto FC 'keeper has garnered his fair share of attention since joining the Lions this year. He is second only to Vancouver’s David Ousted in total saves – 88 to Ousted's 90, from two games fewer – and is almost ever-present on MLS Save of the Week brackets.
“It’s like he’s found a proper home here,” Kerr said. “At Toronto, I don’t think he had the same support, but they didn’t have any preconceived ideas here. We just try to keep it levelheaded.
“I think there have been a few good goalkeepers this season, like Andre Blake and David Ousted. There is a group of about four to five this year, and I’ve told Joe he has to put himself in that group. He’s quite happy when nobody’s talking about him, but he’s in the top four or five in the league.”
With Blake already playing for Jamaica and Ousted a Danish citizen, that means Bendik is in a small group of potential successors to the throne of Howard and Guzan. While he is reluctant to call his own number in the debate, he definitely sees an opportunity.
“I looked up to all the US goalkeepers at a young age, and Tim [Howard] was right up there, with Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and Tony Meola,” Bendik explained. “Now, I think we are going through a phase where the former [national team] No. 1 is kind of taking a back seat, and everybody sees that as an opportunity. So you have guys like [San Jose’s] David Bingham and Bill Hamid [of D.C. United] that are really pushing hard.
“There is definitely a sense people are pushing each other and there has also been an increase in second goalkeepers getting a chance, like Jeff Attinella [at Real Salt Lake], in Houston [with Joe Willis coming in for Tyler Deric] and Brian Rowe at LA All of a sudden, there are a lot of opportunities for people to make their name. When you get an opportunity you have to seize it and, when you’re a goalkeeper, that may be your only opportunity.”
Kerr has no doubt Bendik is hitting his stride at the best possible time to get noticed, now that he is the undisputed No. 1 with his current team and turning in consistent performances week in and week out. It is all a far cry from his three-year stint with Toronto, where he established himself early on but then struggled to regain his form after being benched for Brazilian international Julio Cesar in the middle of the 2014 season.
“Even though Joe has only turned 27, he’s had ups and downs in his career,” Kerr noted. “The fact this club has shown a lot of confidence in him has been vital. That kind of backing really helps a goalkeeper. If you are working for a manager that believes in you, that’s massive. And Joe’s got that confidence in him.”
Even though he never fully settled back into the No. 1 spot after Cesar left TFC following his two-month spell prior to the 2014 World Cup, Bendik still chalks it up as part of his soccer education.
“As it happened, it was quite the learning experience,” he said. “The only way you can eliminate that from happening is showing people it doesn’t need to happen. So if you’re coming week in and week out and doing it well, there might not be a change. But obviously there are other circumstances, and you just have to learn from them as much as you can.”
When it comes to Saturday’s game, Bendik is definitely looking forward to the chance to be on the field with Howard for the first time.
“It’s cool to play against those guys that you once idolized,” he said. “Our careers have never crossed paths, apart from perhaps having Tim Mulqueen as the same goalkeeping coach in residency.
“I’ve never met him or even spoken to him – so maybe I can nick his jersey, as my sister is a huge Tim Howard fan.”