OTTAWA (AP) – D.C. United and the Chicago Fire both had high expectations for their goalkeepers heading into the 2012 season. Both Eastern Conference clubs boasted young standout goalkeepers whose biggest concern at one point was whether both would miss MLS games this summer playing in the summer Olympics.
Things haven't quite worked out that way for Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid. The two most highly-regarded young netminders in the US national team system have seen their seasons turned upside down, and now their MLS clubs are left wondering who will occupy the starting goalkeeper role.
The drama started at the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament, where Hamid struggled before getting injured, and Johnson committed one of the worst and most costly blunders ever made by an American keeper in a US uniform.
The hope was that both Hamid and Johnson would shake off the nightmare in Nashville and move on with their promising careers, but things have gone far from smoothly for either.
Take Hamid, who suffered a bone bruise in his ankle in the US' decisive Olympic Qualifying draw against El Salvador (the one that knocked the Americans out of Olympic contention). The injury delayed his return to D.C. United, and lasted long enough for back-up keeper Joe Willis to impress Ben Olsen, who decided to stick with Willis even after Hamid recovered.
So here is Hamid, a 21-year-old player considered by US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to be the future of the US national team goalkeeping position, wallowing on an MLS bench despite being healthy.
Will he stay there much longer? It's tough to imagine it, as D.C. has surrendered seven goals in two matches and Willis looks far from steady.
If anything, the extended time on the bench might help provide Hamid with the motivation he needs to play at the elite level he was expected to reach this year, or at least return to the impressive form he showed at the start of the MLS season. Above all, Hamid must be eager to redeem himself after a forgettable showing in Olympic qualifying.
While Hamid looks poised to regain his starting role with D.C. United, Johnson looks to be on the verge of losing his starting job with Chicago.
Johnson showed courage and maturity in facing up to his Olympic qualifying blunder. Since returning to the Fire, his play has been far from consistent. The 22-year old has committed some bad errors, including one on the decisive goal in last week's loss to Seattle, and has looked far from completely confident in goal.
Johnson's shaky form has put Chicago head coach Frank Klopas in a tough spot. Italian goalkeeper Paolo Tornaghi played well in Johnson's place during Olympic qualifying, but Klopas decided to put Johnson right back into the lineup, hoping he could regain the confidence he lost after the Olympic qualifying debacle.
If that was the goal, it doesn't appear to have worked. Now Klopas is left with the unenviable task of deciding whether to keep Johnson in while he works out the kinks, or to go with Tornaghi, who has shown he is capable of doing the job.
It seems like a simple enough decision to make, but not when Johnson was supposed to be a cornerstone of the franchise, and not when there is a very reasonable fear that benching him now might mean losing him for the season from a mental standpoint.
These are the problems you face when you play young goalkeepers. It is a position that takes years to master, and the early years are always fraught with blunders and growing pains. That doesn't stop teams from taking tremendous young talents and sticking with them in the starting lineup with the hope of polishing a diamond. The MetroStars did that with Tim Howard a decade ago, and Chivas USA did the same with Brad Guzan.
More recently, the Philadelphia Union have handed the reins to Zac MacMath. After some early struggles, MacMath is rounding into the goalkeeper the Union thought he would be when they picked him fifth overall in the 2011 MLS Draft. The 20-year old committed some terrible mistakes early in the season, but the Union stuck by him and he eventually settled own and put together a three-match shutout streak. In fact, right now you can argue that he, not Hamid or Johnson, is the most impressive young goalkeeper in MLS.
It is still early for all of these young goalkeepers. There is plenty of time for Johnson to straighten out his game, and Hamid to regain his place as both the D.C. United starter and the US national team's goalkeeper of the future.
The year hasn't gone how they wanted it to thus far, but they will both have opportunities to write their own ideal endings to the 2012 season.
Here is a look at this weekend's MLS action, with predictions and the picks for this weekend's top matches:
LAST WEEK'S RECORD (7-5), SEASON RECORD (41-34)
Seattle pulled off two wins in the past week, as did San Jose, who came from behind in both victories against Philadelphia and D.C. United. New York won at home despite a myriad of defensive injuries (and the loss of Thierry Henry) while Montreal recorded a well-earned victory against struggling Portland.
TOP FIVE MLS MATCHES
1- VANCOUVER WHITECAPS vs. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
The Earthquakes stunned the Whitecaps 3-1 when these sides met last month. With the way San Jose is playing, it's tough to bet against them. Chris Wondolowski scores yet again in a win. Whitecaps 1, EARTHQUAKES 2.
2- SPORTING KANSAS CITY vs. MONTREAL IMPACT
A week off should help give Sporting KC a boost as they look to rebound from their first loss of the season. Montreal looked sharp last week, but winning at Livestrong Sporting Park is still too tall an order. SPORTING KC 2, Impact 0.
3- SEATTLE SOUNDERS vs. PHILADELPHIA UNION
With Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero riding high from their mid-week win against LA, the Sounders attack looks poised for another strong showing, though the Union defense is tougher than most. SOUNDERS 1, Union 0.
4- LOS ANGELES GALAXY vs. NEW YORK RED BULLS
This would be the top match on this list if Thierry Henry hadn't been injured, but without him and as many as five other starters, the Red Bulls will stand little chance against a hungry Galaxy side. GALAXY 2, Red Bulls 0.
5- FC DALLAS vs. COLORADO RAPIDS
The Rapids looked flat losing to New England, and are sure to feel the fatigue of a mid-week game against a rested Dallas side capable of putting up a big number on the Rapids. FC DALLAS 3, Rapids 1.