As D.C. United’s third-choice goalkeeper for two seasons, Andrew Dykstra watched matches from RFK Stadium’s mezzanine. On occasion, because of injuries or other absences, he would make it as far as the bench.
Mostly, though, the Osbourn Park High and Virginia Commonwealth graduate would report to Charleston, S.C., or Richmond for loan assignments in U.S. soccer’s third division.
It was not a terrible set-up. He said he was “getting the best benefit from both sides”: MLS’s pay and practice environment mixed with competitive, albeit lower-caliber, matches.
Dykstra’s situation did not seem likely to change this year. At training camp, though, he beat out Joe Willis for the backup position, and when starter Bill Hamid returned from U.S. national team duty two weeks ago with a sore toe, Dykstra found himself in an MLS regular season match for the first time since October 2010 with the Chicago Fire.
“My job for the last couple of years has been to be ready for this occasion,” he said, “and then this happened.”
A lot has happened to Dykstra, 28, since leaving VCU.
He was undrafted. He had two tryouts in Germany, his family’s homeland, before signing a developmental contract with Chicago. He was a surprise starter in 2010 and released in 2011. He signed with Charleston.
He auditioned for D.C., Kansas City and Seattle, signing with United but playing regularly for Charleston’s 2012 championship team. He had workouts with German, Scottish and English clubs. He remained with United and accepted an assignment last year to Richmond, where he was voted the league’s goalkeeper of the year.
“He got to a point where we told him: ‘Be patient. You are making progress,’ ” United General Manager Dave Kasper said. “He clearly made a lot of progress getting a lot of games in Charleston and Richmond. He has become much better, much more consistent. His communication is better, he is calmer.”
Dykstra was not a typical third-string MLS goalkeeper. Many clubs fill that forgotten position with a player just out of college. United appreciated his experience.
His chances of playing in first-team matches, though, remained remote. In fact, he played against his current teammates before getting a chance to play with them in an official match: While on the Richmond assignment, he started against United in the U.S. Open Cup, an annual tournament featuring teams from all levels of soccer. He posted a shutout through 120 minutes but was beaten in a penalty kick tiebreaker.
Over the course of the year, Dykstra said, “It takes a lot of mental practice and turning the switch and going, ‘Okay, this is for D.C.,’ and flipping the switch and saying, ‘Okay, I’ve got to do this for Richmond.’ ”
His rise, United Coach Ben Olsen said, is testament to the loan agreement between MLS and USL-Pro. In the past, players deep on the depth chart would only see action in MLS’s reserve league, which has failed to live up to expectations since launching in 2005. (United left the reserve league before the 2013 season and partnered with Richmond. Each week, three to five D.C. players report to the Kickers.)
“We put a lot of stock into guys going down there and getting real games,” Olsen said. “It’s important to have a season. Or else, what else are you doing on the weekends? Andrew went down there with the right attitude and wanting to succeed. And now he is able to step in and do a good job.”
Dykstra was tested once against New England and faced a barrage of threats by New York last Saturday. The Red Bulls missed the target repeatedly, but Dykstra made a quality save and was assertive in the box.
Chances are, when healthy, Hamid will return to the lineup. Olsen now knows, though, he can count on Dykstra.
“He has done well,” captain Bobby Boswell said. “He has done very well.”
United notes: Midfielder Collin Martin (Bethesda-Chevy Chase High) was invited to the U.S. under-21 national team’s training camp in Carson, Calif., starting Sunday. . . . Defender Chris Korb (knee) and midfielder Luis Silva (ankle) might be available next week.