D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen hasn’t had to worry about his goalkeeping situation in months: Bill Hamid was the clear-cut starter, Steve Cronin the primary backup and rookie Joe Willis in the No. 3 slot.
But Hamid’s red-card suspension and Cronin’s disappointing performance in relief last week forced Olsen to put more thought into his selection ahead of Saturday night’s match against the Vancouver Whitecaps at RFK Stadium.
For competitive reasons, Olsen won’t reveal his choice until an hour before kickoff, but Cronin’s experience is likely to trump Willis’s rawness.
“With Bill out, our eyes were on the goalkeepers more than usual and we evaluated it all week,” said Olsen, who, like Hamid, will watch from the mezzanine level after being ejected during the 3-3 draw with Toronto FC a week ago.
Olsen and his staff were able to evaluate Cronin for 80-plus minutes after Hamid’s red card. A day later, they watched Willis play an entire reserve league match. And throughout a week of training, they monitored both keepers.
Cronin hasn’t started an MLS game since United summoned him from the second division for the last two weeks of the 2009 season. After D.C. acquired him last winter, he broke his hand in training camp. By the time he returned, Hamid was entrenched in the starting role.
Cronin’s regular season debut came in difficult circumstances last Saturday after Hamid’s early dismissal. He performed well the remainder of the first half but then faltered several times.
“In hindsight, I wish I could’ve done better,” said Cronin, who started 28 games for Los Angeles between 2005 and ’08. “When things don’t go well, you can find it snowballing pretty quickly if you don’t grab a hold of it. All you can do is work through it.”
“I don’t think it was his best performance,” Olsen said, “but I have confidence in Steve.”
Willis recovered from a broken finger to start last Sunday’s reserve match and yielded one goal.
“I work as hard as I can all the time, but this week, knowing there was a chance I could get some playing time, it was a little more motivating,” said the 6-foot-5 keeper from the University of Denver.
Regardless who is in net, United will again attempt to exploit an opponent that hasn’t won on the road this season: The Whitecaps are 0-8-4 with nine goals scored.
In the previous two home matches, both against teams without an away victory, United secured just one of a possible six points. Overall, D.C. is 2-3-6 at RFK and hasn’t won there since May 4.
To replicate the routine and preparation for an away match — where United is 4-3-3 — Olsen arranged for the squad to stay at a Crystal City hotel the night before the match for the second consecutive week. This time, he also conducted practice late Friday instead of during the usual morning hours.
“I don’t think it’s going to make us win or lose games, but I can make sure some of the things I am concerned with are taken care of,” Olsen said. “I just want to make sure the boxes are checked: guys eating the right food, getting the proper rest. We have better control over it.”
Both teams employ attackers in superb form: United’s Dwayne De Rosario has scored six goals in six appearances since being acquired from New York and notched a hat trick last week. Eric Hassli’s 10 goals for Vancouver are third in the MLS scoring race, one behind Los Angeles’s Landon Donovan and New York’s Thierry Henry.
The first-ever meeting between the clubs reintroduces United and Whitecaps interim coach Tom Soehn, who served three years as a D.C. assistant and three as the head coach until his 2009 departure. Now Vancouver’s director of soccer operations, he returned to the sideline in May after Teitur Thordarson’s firing. Next year he will yield to recently hired Martin Rennie.
With Olsen suspended, Soehn will face Chad Ashton, his top assistant while in Washington. (Ashton filled in late last season while Olsen served a one-game suspension.)
“It will be a bit strange because I’m used to going into the home locker room at RFK,” Soehn told the Whitecaps’ Web site. “When you spend that much time in an organization, you leave behind a lot of friends. It adds to the competitiveness because you want to leave a lasting impression.”