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Dynamo GK Joe Willis repays faith to prevail in US Open Cup PK shootout

HOUSTON – There is no lack of goalkeeping experience on the Houston Dynamo roster between the likes of MLS veterans Joe Willis and Chris Seitz, so when head coach Wilmer Cabrera opted for the former, it only raised eyebrows because Seitz had been the one getting the starts in the 2018 U.S. Open Cup.

The Dynamo played to a 3-3 draw in Wednesday’s Open Cup semifinal against LAFC and penalties were needed to secure a spot in the final. Willis was Houston's Man of the Match after coming up with two saves in the shootout, prompting the question if Cabrera had envisioned this scenario all along.

“No,” said the Dynamo manager in his postgame comments after the 7-6 shootout win. “We needed to play whoever is, right now, it’s in the best condition. So, that was the decision at the end.”

Those who follow the Dynamo know Cabrera is known for rotations, even with his goalkeepers. This season, the Colombian tactician has fielded 22 different lineups in as many league games and has yet to repeat a starting XI in Open Cup play.

Willis, in fact, did not begin the season as the starter despite playing the part during the team’s run to the 2017 Western Conference Championship. This was partly due to arriving late to preseason after negotiating a new contract.

After Seitz started the first five MLS matches for the Dynamo after joining as a free agent in the offseason, Willis regained the trust of the manager and has played in the subsequent 17 league matches. He repaid that trust on Wednesday, although it was tested at times, most notably when he missed an attempt to play the ball on a free kick, giving LAFC forward Diego Rossi a chance at a looping header, which he converted in the 95th minute to complete a hat trick and take the game to extra time.

“I think at that point, you try to make one or two saves to help your team,” said Willis. “Also, hope that we make our penalties, and that’s what happened tonight.”

Yet, as easy as it sounds, it wasn’t all just going out there and making the stops. Willis also discussed the preparation that went into this match by Dynamo goalkeeping coach Paul Rogers.

“Usually before every game we do our research on who’s taking penalties for them in the past and where they tend to go,” Willis told MLSsoccer.com. “It was an interesting situation because most of their normal penalty takers had either been subbed off or weren’t here for some reason so he gave me some details on the guys who where still on the field, where they like to go, and, fortunately, it was enough.”

The win in penalties and passage booked for their first U.S. Open Cup final signifies a bright spot in what has been the roughest stretch of the season for the team, currently undergoing a five-match winless streak in the league. It is unknown if Willis will be rested for Saturday’s match at Columbus Crew SC (7:30 pm ET | Full TV & Streaming Info) but Cabrera knows he can count on “Big Joe.”

“What I was expecting is the players to take the penalties with that personality and try to find the goal and they did it,” said Cabrera. “The goalkeepers are there just to try to save one and, in fact, [LAFC’s Tyler] Miller saved one but Joe saved two.”