WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the immediate aftermath of Saturday night's 4-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, D.C. United goalkeeper Joe Willis had no idea whether his teammates would give him the match ball, or indeed any souvenir from his memorable debut.
"I guess maybe I'll keep the jersey," Willis said, pulling at his light blue goalkeeper's uniform.
What Willis actually did get, courtesy of injured defender Kurt Morsink, was a shaving cream pie in the face. Rookie protocol had to be observed, after all.
The performance of the 23-year-old Willis, who recorded six saves in the win, marked the end of a long waiting period for the former University of Denver Pioneer, who was drafted by United with the 50th overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. The Black-and-Red traded both of their first-round picks in the MLS Supplemental Draft to the Los Angeles Galaxy for the chance to grab Willis, which spoke to how highly the United brass thought of the goalkeeper.
"[D.C. United assistant coach] Chad [Ashton] knew him from Denver [where Ashton coached until 2006]," United goalkeeping coach Pat Onstad said. "And at the combine, he was head-and-shoulders above everybody else."
Willis became part of a three-way goalkeeping competition alongside 20-year-old Bill Hamid and and 28-year-old Steve Cronin (acquired in the offseason from Portland). But he was so raw that the club actually signed Onstad to a short-term playing contract at the start of the season so that the coach could back up Cronin while Hamid recovered from offseason shoulder surgery.
However, Willis continued to apply himself in training and with Hamid suspended for Saturday night's game after this red card against Toronto FC, Willis had improved enough to engage Cronin in a mano-a-mano showdown for the starting job.
"At the start of the week, we, as a group, decided we were going to let them battle it out over the course of the week," said Ashton, who coached United while Ben Olsen served a one-game suspension. "It was a good battle -- they both did a good job. Joe was just a little bit better during the course of the week."
On Friday, two days after Willis' 23rd birthday, Ashton informed the young goalkeeper that he would start against Vancouver.
"For most of the day [Saturday], I was pretty nervous," Willis said. "A lot of the older guys talked me through it, and I was ready to go after warm-ups."
Willis certainly showed no sign of nerves during a crazy sequence in the first half, when he dove to his right to tip away Camilo's free kick off the underside of the crossbar. In the scramble that followed, Willis scrambled to make two point-blank saves and required help via a timely goal-line block by Daniel Woolard.
"They had one guy in the wall, and Clyde [Simms] did a great job of knocking him out of the way so I could get a good look," Willis said. "In that situation, you just try to make yourself as big as possible and hope that you grab it or one of your defenders clears it."
Willis made one more great save to deny Vancouver's Eric Hassli, and that combined with Chris Pontius' second goal managed to, in Ashton's words, "break their back."
Hamid, who was called up to the U.S. National Team for the August 10 friendly against Mexico, will be eligible to rejoin the team for Thursday's match at Chicago. With United battling for a playoff spot, it would be understandable if Ben Olsen slotted him back into the lineup. However, after Willis' sparkling debut, United appear to have three quality netminders, and that's a very good problem for any team to have.
"His technique has improved, and his conditioning has gotten a lot better," said Onstad. "Having all three of these guys at the club is a good sign for the future, but there's still a way to go."