A quick glance at D.C. United's preseason depthchart reveals Joe Willis as the club's number two goalie. Yet labeling Willis a second-choicekeeper would be as misguided as calling the 6-foot-5 netminder short. Despite playing in just three games asa rookie in 2011, Willis has more than earned the trust of United's staff.
"We are very confident in Joe,"goalkeeper coach Pat Onstad said after Tuesday's training session. "The guys believe in him now. It's a nice thing to have when you'renot just going in there and the guys have only seen you in training. The guys have seen him do it in gamesthat matter."
That trust will be tested over the next weeksas Willis takes over for the departed Bill Hamid, who joined the U.S. U-23 teamfor Olympic qualifying on Tuesday. With stiff tests against Los Angeles and Vancouver looming, theUniversity of Denver product will have little time to adjust to his new role.
"The biggest challenge is gettingaccustomed to playing with guys who you don't play with everyday," saidWillis. "Being thrown into arole where I'm playing with a completely different back four, the communicationhas to be there and we have to figure out how each other play."
While Ben Olsen and company expect Willis todeliver the same high quality of play as Hamid, fans shouldn't expect it tolook the same. Much more reservedthan his younger teammate, Willis' emotions will not be a barometer of howthings are going around him. Infact, it's the 23-year-old goalie's stoic approach that makes him an ideal fitfor the pressure-packed backup position.
"I think Joe's strength is hisdemeanor," Onstad added. "He's got a perfect demeanor for the position. He doesn't get too high or too low,he's very even keel."
"Bill has a loud personality. He's always very active and veryenergized," Willis noted of his goalkeeping counterpart. "I'm not as energetic as he is. Everyone has their ownpersonalities."
While their personalities differ, one skillthat unites Hamid and Willis is the ability to make the spectacular,momentum-shifting save. In hisfirst career start against Vancouver last year, Willis denied an upper-ninetybound free kick that would have put the Whitecaps up 1-0 moments before the halftime. Inspired by theirgoalkeeper's heroics, D.C. scored four goals in the second half as Willisearned man of the match honors.
After his solid debut season, Willis honed inon one key area for improvement ahead of his sophomore campaign. As a rookie Willis admits he found itdifficult to yell at his more experienced teammates, something United's backshad grown accustomed to while playing in front of the demonstrative Hamid. Now with a season under his belt, andwith the respect of D.C.'s dressing room, Willis won't be shy about letting hisdefenders know what is needed.
"I think [my teammates] confidence in me plays a bigpart," Willis said. "When I hear some of the guys say they have confidence in me, ithelps build my confidence and lets me know I can talk to them in the way I wantto and not get a negative reaction."
Willis and his D.C. teammates will depart for California later this week ahead of Sunday's showdown with the Galaxy. The game can be seen live on Galavision at 7:00 p.m.