United (2-13-4) was blanked for the sixth time in eight matches (12th time overall) and remained winless on the road with one goal scored. But Willis’s gems stymied the Rapids (7-7-6) and provided a refreshing jolt at the conclusion of five games in 16 days.
“If I had to give Joe a match rating, it would be 10 out of 10,” center back Ethan White said. “He bailed us out a bunch of times.”
The former University of Denver standout replaced Bill Hamid, who is with the U.S. national team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup and will not return until probably late July. Although Hamid has served as United’s starter for most of three seasons, Willis is no novice.
“He has had plenty of nights like this. This isn’t a one-off for Joe,” Coach Ben Olsen said of Willis, who made his 17th career regular season start and has manned the net for the first three U.S. Open Cup matches this year. “We have a lot of faith in him. It’s only because he has earned that faith. It’s not like we’re just giving it to him. He has had a few games where he has been the guy in charge.”
Willis, 24, thwarted rookie Deshorn Brown three times and made four other stops in front of more than 20 guests from his college days. He preserved the tie in the 75th minute with a reflex stop on Brown deep in the penalty area.
“I messed it up in the beginning,” Willis said. “I started to come, and my communication with Ethan was just bad. [Brown] was able to get in behind him. Once he did that, I tried to come out and make myself as big as possible and was fortunate to get a hand to it.”
“Phenomenal,” right back James Riley said of his goalie. “Bill is top notch and a fantastic young goalkeeper, but we are fortunate to also have a good young back-up.”
United’s lineup featured just four players who started the opener four months ago: defender Daniel Woolard, midfielders Perry Kitchen and John Thorrington and forward Chris Pontius.
Aside from Hamid, United was missing defender Dejan Jakovic (adductor injury), midfielder Nick DeLeon (ankle sprain) and forward Dwayne De Rosario (hip flexor strain).
Probable starters Chris Korb and Alain Rochat were in uniform but on the bench. Korb was nursing a minor hamstring ailment and did not play. Rochat had missed three practices in order to spend time with his wife, who gave birth to their fourth child. He entered at halftime.
Rookie defender Taylor Kemp, a Colorado native, made his second start and veteran forward Carlos Ruiz received his fourth assignment.
Willis’s work began in the 12th minute with a reflex save on Brown’s knee-propelled shot from close range. Moments later, Brown snapped a loose ball wide after Willis interrupted a long ball into the box.