Don’t let the 6' 5" frame and grizzly beard fool you; D.C. United backup goalkeeper Joe Willis is every bit the gentle giant. Unassuming, warm and polite beyond measure, Willis’ quiet ascent in the United goalkeeping ranks has been rewarded with a training stint at English Premier League side Sunderland AFC. With the aid of Black-and-Red goalkeeper coach and MLS legend Pat Onstad, Willis will head across the pond tonight to be with the Black Cats for a little under 10 days. The University of Denver graduate has previously trained abroad with Tottenham Hotspur, Fulham and Cardiff City.
“Pat asked me if I wanted to do it, and I told him, ‘Absolutely,’ said Willis. “Anytime you have an opportunity to train with a Premier League team, you’re not really going to pass it up.”
In his second campaign with United, Willis appeared 11 times (10 starts), logging close to 1,000 minutes and posting two shutouts. The 24-year-old also featured in two playoff games, including a clutch substitute performance in Leg 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals when he saved a retaken penalty kick by New York’s Kenny Cooper. Playing down a man after Bill Hamid was issued a red card, United wound up victorious, with Willis’ roommate Nick DeLeon notching the game-winning, series-clinching goal in the 88th minute.
“I would say that my positioning has gotten a lot better,” Willis shared when asked about improvements in his game this year. “That was one of Pat’s strong points as a player, so that’s something he’s been able to pass on to myself and the other goalies. Reading the game and communicating, it can still be better for me, but it’s definitely gotten better since I joined.”
Willis calls Franconia, Va., home along with DeLeon and defender Chris Korb, and the three thrived together with the team in 2012. Willis won the starting goalkeeper spot at the beginning of the season, while DeLeon went on to break the club’s rookie goal-scoring record en route to being named a finalist for the MLS Rookie of the Year. Korb, 25, set career highs in games played (26), games started (22), minutes (2,051) and assists (3) from the backline.
“I’ve gotten to know the guys and everyone in the D.C. United organization and you know, having two years experience now definitely feels a lot more comfortable,” said Willis. “I’ve definitely gotten a lot better as a player...and I’m less nervous and more excited now.”
Jokingly dubbed "'The Real World’ House” by DC Assistant Coach Josh Wolff, the 20-something trio’s four-bedroom Alexandria pad plays host to predictable activities, including some heavy-duty FIFA 13 sessions. During Movember – in the midst of the MLS postseason – DeLeon and Korb added to the shenanigans, placing a bet with Willis that he would not be able to grow his beard and hair out for an entire year. A few months in, Willis is keeping his end of the wager.
“The beard is coming along,” Willis said. “It’s not quite where I want it yet, but it’s definitely getting there. It hasn’t really been touched since I started growing it, so it’s getting a little wild, a little out of control.”
“I’m committed to a year, but we’ll see,” the goalkeeper went on to say. “I’m going to play it by ear and see how it goes. I still got, like, seven or eight months left to grow it, so in a few months once it starts getting a little longer, we’ll see.”
With the team set to head to Florida for the preseason and the first regular-season match 0f 2013 less than two months away, Willis is looking forward to fighting for that No. 1 spot among a deep group. Starting netminder Bill Hamid was recently called back up to the U.S. Men’s National Team, and third goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra is headed to an English training stint of his own with Hartlepool United FC.
“It’s tough having him on the same team when it’s a position where only one guy can play,” said Willis of Hamid. “But it’s also good having strong competition in your spot because it makes me better and helps motivate me to be better.”