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Feature: Joe Willis

Gentle giant shining in Hamid’s absence

Joe Willis - at Colorado - 2013

Photo Credit: 
USA Today Sports Images

If Joe Willis had a Twitter, his handle might be “@WillisBeard.” His bio might read something like “D.C. by way of St. Louis, Mo. and Denver, Colo.,” or “Goalkeeper for D.C. United #31,” or maybe “I like this band called Phish,” or perhaps, “I’d rather be camping.”

They say goalkeepers are a different type of breed. You need to have a little crazy in you to throw your body in the path of a rocketed shot, or run at an oncoming attacker to stop a breakaway. Well, Joe Willis definitely fits the mold. His eclectic taste in, well, everything, makes him well-rounded and a tad off-beat, but his determination, humility and commitment to improvement never strays.

Willis featured at the University of Denver (DU) before being selected in the third round of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. D.C. United Assistant Coach Chad Ashton was at the helm of DU’s program during Willis’ first collegiate season, and Ashton only sings the praises of the unassuming Willis.

“The big thing I noticed about him immediately as a freshman was the bigger the environment, the more he embraced it,” said Ashton.

From Willis’ perspective, it almost always boils down to preparation.

“I’m always thinking about what I did wrong and what I can do better,” said Willis. “Thinking about the saves you make isn’t going to help you in the next game. It’s fun to enjoy it for the night but after that, it’s over and it’s time to start thinking about the next game.”

On D.C. United, though, it is rare that Willis gets a “next game” to prepare for. With Homegrown goalkeeper Bill Hamid on the squad, Willis understands that when he is given an opportunity, he must seize it.

“Bill’s a good goalie—you always want to play, but when you have a good player playing in front of you, it’s easier,” Willis said.

And once you add Andrew Dykstra into the mix, the competition for starting ‘keeper gets even more intense.

“It’s good, it’s really good,” said Willis on the dynamic between Hamid, Dykstra and himself. “It’s a healthy competition… We’re always feeding off of each other, and I think we all get better from that.”

While the competition between the goalkeepers might be “good” and “healthy,” the competition between teammates, and former roommates, Nick DeLeon and Chris Korb was “epic” according to Willis.

“It was Korb, [now Philadelphia Union midfielder] Danny Cruz, Nick DeLeon and myself, and then Pete Calabrese, our strength and conditioning coach, and then all of our girlfriends,” recalled Willis, naming his roommates from ‘the Real World house,’ as the team called it. “We all lived in a five-bedroom house, and we had three dogs and a cat, and a hamster.”

It may be no surprise that after a year of that, all three United players now only live with their girlfriends, but not before having their fun while it lasted.

“It got pretty interesting sometimes,” admitted Willis. “There were some pretty epic soccer tennis matches in our basement. After a while, Danny got traded, so we’d play me and Korb versus Pete and Nick. I think at one point, we were 35-0.”

As Willis told CSN play-by-play man Dave Johnson on Monumental FC, the competition from home carried over to the training field.

“I would always talk to Nick, and we would have little bets on how many goals he would score for that day,” said Willis.

Although he might have lived in an environment similar to a college fraternity house, Ashton knows how far Willis has come since his freshman year.

“He was a similar height at the time but not nearly as thick as he is now—he was very, very skinny,” said Ashton. “I think since he’s come here he’s grown a ton… you have to be ready when your chance comes and you have to take advantage of it when your chance comes, and I think he’s done a great job of that.”

After Willis’s standout performance in Colorado on July 7 in front of family and friends, it’s clear to see the 6’5’’ man is a star on the rise, and the coaching staff agrees.

“The sky’s the limit,” said Ashton. “Hopefully he’ll be a big-time goalkeeper for a long time.”

“Don’t let him fool you,” added Ashton, laughing. “Even though on the surface he acts like he’s a quiet, nice guy, having seen him as a freshman he’s got a little bit of a wild side to him. He’s got some personality to him, and again, that’s part of what makes him a character.”

What is quickly becoming a huge part of his character is what spurred a few Twitter hasthags during the team’s recent match versus the Rapids—that beard.

“I started doing it in college just because I really didn’t like shaving,” said Willis simply. “There’s nothing really special about it, I just like having it. It’s fun to play with sometimes when I get bored.”

And to put those who compared Willis’ beard to other professional athlete’s theories to rest, the young goalkeeper leaves you with this.

“It’s definitely not inspired by James Harden, though.”