With a starting XI hovering around an average age of 25 years, it might come as no surprise that rookie Nick DeLeon and second-year player Joe Willis – roommates off the field – were the ones to produce the decidedly clutch moments in Thursday’s 1-0 Eastern Conference semifinal victory over the New York Red Bulls.
24-year-old Willis entered the match in the 69th minute after starting goalkeeper Bill Hamid was ejected for clipping New York forward Kenny Cooper in the box. Cooper’s first penalty kick attempt was called back on grounds of encroachment, and on the second attempt, Willis stretched out to his left to deny Cooper and keep the match at 0-0.
“We had a similar situation last year when we played Portland and he took the PK,” Willis said of his thought process after the first attempt. “He went one side, it got called back, and he went the other side. So, I was lucky that Pat [Onstad] reminded me of that before the game and lucky I made the save.”
Housemate DeLeon may be familiar with Willis’ living habits, but he is also well-versed in his netminding abilities. “He’s a good PK stopper – I know that,” said DeLeon. “He’s a big body and he reads the player well…credit to Joe – huge save and he kept us in the game. Huge credit to him.”
Reduced to 10 men as a result of Hamid’s red card, United only had to wait six minutes for the sides to go back to even numbers when New York defender Rafa Marquez was shown a second yellow.
And in the 88th minute, 22-year-old MLS Rookie of the Year candidate DeLeon struck the back of the net off of a Robbie Russell pass for the game-winner. Immediately following the goal, DeLeon rushed over to the endline where 300 Black-and-Red supporters were sitting above, thumped his chest, pointed at the United logo, and banged his hand against the field boards in celebration.
“The fans, man – that’s huge,” said DeLeon. “I can’t thank them enough for coming out. This is for them, this is for our franchise, this is for everybody. We can’t thank them enough, honestly.”