HOUSTON – Houston backup goalkeeper Joe Willis is no stranger to the situation he’ll enter into on Sunday in Leg 2 of the Dynamo’s Western Conference Semifinal bout against the Portland Timbers (7:30 pm ET; FS1 in the US | TSN1, TVAS in Canada).
Willis, the presumed starter after Houston’s No. 1 goalkeeper Tyler Deric was suspended pending an investigation into an alleged domestic dispute, has had to replace a stellar ‘keeper before.
When Willis was a member of D.C. United in 2012, he came on late in the second leg of the Black-and-Red’s playoff series against the New York Red Bulls after starter Bill Hamid was ejected. His impact was felt immediately, as he saved a late penalty to preserve D.C.’s 2-1 aggregate win and push United to the Eastern Conference Championship series.
Willis and D.C. United would eventually lose in the conference finals to the Dynamo, the team he hopes to lead to an upset victory on Sunday at Portland. Having only played in eight regular season games this season, how does Willis change gears to now be the number one ‘keeper?
“You never switch gears, to be honest,” Willis said. “Whether you’re playing, whether you’re on the bench or whether you’re not dressing. Every day you come out here you have to have the mentality that, ‘tomorrow my number could be called.’”
Deric has saved the Dynamo on more than one occasion this season in spectacular fashion. He was named MLS Player of the Month for his heroics between the sticks in October and had recorded four straight shutouts to close the regular season and open the playoffs. Replacing him won’t be easy.
Cabrera, noting that Willis finds himself in a position that any player would love to be in, is confident Willis can seamlessly replace Deric in the starting lineup.
“Because he’s practiced at 100 percent and is giving everything. They [keepers] all practiced at the same time, received the same instructions and get the same amount of repetitions,” Cabrera said. “Now, it’s just a matter of him. He has the support [of the team] and he’s ready to go and get it.”
Dynamo defender Adolfo Machado doesn’t think Houston doesn’t need to change their defensive approach against Portland just because Deric is out. Continuity and consistency will be key on Sunday.
“We’ve had a year of preparation and we’ve all played in games. We all know the system we play,” Machado said. “We need to be solid defensively, concentrate, communicate and be alert.”
The change at goalkeeper is the third switch the Dynamo have had to make in defense in the past couple of weeks. Regular right back AJ DeLaGarza went down for the year with a torn ACL in the regular season finale and center back Leonardo suffered a left leg injury in the Knockout Round against Sporting Kansas City and didn’t play in Leg 1.
Despite the lineup changes, Houston is currently on a 447-minute shutout streak. Willis credits the coaching staff for keeping everyone ready to contribute in light of the recent injuries.
“It doesn’t really matter who’s playing,” Willis said. “Everyone is on the same page and know what they need to do and everyone else has confidence in each other.”