Joe Willis: A Reliable Wall
By Zachary Junda (@ZacharyJunda), contributor.
There’s something about a wall. Walls are an immovable, impenetrable shield. They can keep allies safe and enemies out; it’s why the Chinese built the Great Wall of China thousands of years ago. A well constructed wall can stand forever and impress defense upon onlookers. Nashville SC hope Joe Willis can be that wall in their inaugural MLS season.
Nashville acquired Willis in November, trading for the former Houston Dynamo goalkeeper with Zarek Valentin, Nashville’s second selection in the Expansion Draft, also sending $75,000 in allocation money going to Houston. Willis had been a fixture for Houston, ranking third all time in both games played and saves.
Willis made his MLS debut in 2011 with D.C. United. A third round selection from the University of Denver, Willis played sparingly in 2011. His first appearance came against Vancouver and recorded six saves in a 4-0 win. Willis would only play in three games, and nabbed 12 saves in 270 minutes.
Over his last two seasons in D.C., Willis played in 20 matches, starting 19. The sole match he didn’t start came in the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals, where Willis came off the bench and saved a penalty kick against the New York Red Bulls.
Willis was traded to Houston prior to the 2014 season. Willis initially served as the Dynamo’s backup goalkeeper to Tyler Deric, but an injury to Deric and strong relief outings by Willis led to Willis taking the starting job for Houston. Willis was a key cog in Houston reaching the 2017 Western Conference Finals.
Unfortunately for Willis, the tables turned on him. A decline in play led to Deric reclaiming the starting keeper spot. With Deric back in goal, and a need for depth at left back due to DaMarcus Beasley retiring, Willis was expendable for Houston and Nashville pounced.
In Willis, Nashville hopes they have their franchise goalkeeper for their genesis season.
“I think it’s pretty easy to see we placed a high value on guys having extensive experience in MLS,” Nashville SC general manager Mike Jacobs said. “What Joe has done throughout his career in the league, in U.S. Open Cup and in CONCACAF Champions League gives him experience that’s really important for a first-year team to have.”
The 31-year-old St. Louis native’s career has been a mixed bag. For his career, Willis has saved 352 shots but has allowed 187 goals. He’s recorded 18 shutouts in 113 games, but has a 34-54-25 record in his nine seasons. However, he has an experienced, steady hand in goal and could prove to be exactly what an expansion franchise needs.
“Overall, he’s a solid goalkeeper, either as a starter or a backup,” Derek Stowers, who covered Willis for Dynamo Theory said. “He can make the big time saves and I’d argue he would be a bigger name nam in the league if Houston had a better back line in front of him. He isn’t world class as he needs to work on holding the ball and quickly distributing from the back along with longer passes;, but this isn’t the Premier League and Joe Willis is a very good MLS goalkeeper.”
“I’d be very comfortable with him as a starting goalkeeper, so unless Nashville breaks the bank for a big name, I’d say he’s day one ready,” Stowers added.
With the makings of a stout defense in front of him, Willis has a chance to rejuvenate his career in Nashville and help the first-year team stay competitive in their Major League Soccer debut.