[MLS CUP SPOTLIGHT] Not for the first time, Josh Saunders has been called upon by the Galaxy, and once again he’s
responded. The emergency replacement for starter Donovan Ricketts in MLS Cup 2009 has stepped in several times for Ricketts again this year, but the difference
in 2011 is his keeping the No. 1 shirt despite the return to full fitness of the Jamaican international.
Saunders has been rewarded for his diligence during five professional seasons in which he never played an MLS game -- that’s zero, none, zilch -- for Los Angeles or San Jose, which drafted him in 2003.
He played lower-division ball in Portland (90 games), Puerto Rico (22) and Miami (27) and thus proved his worth to many people around the league while verifying the impressions of Tim Hanley, his first mentor in the pros. The Houston goalkeeping coach was on the San Jose staff, along with assistant Dominic Kinnear and head coach Frank Yallop. They scouted him numerous times during his college days up the road a few miles at California.
“We watched him maybe about 10 times,” remembers Hanley, “and every game we saw him he did really well. We drafted him at kind of unfortunate time; we already had Pat [Onstad], and we’d drafted [Steve] Cronin as well, and also there was Jon Conway already there. So Josh was kind of stuck.
“Every young keeper should do what he did. They need to get out and get those three or four years of playing games. It takes experience; the minutes for goalies are crucial. Some guys can get that experience in three years, other guys take five or 10. All credit to him for forging himself a tremendous career.”
Saunders, a native of Grants Pass, Ore., stuck it out despite the gnawing absence of first-team action in the top tier. The Galaxy waived him in 2007 and he played with Miami, which ironically loaned him back and he made his MLS debut at the tail end of the 2008 season. He then signed an MLS deal with the Galaxy for the 2009 season.
“It was one those things that if you lose faith in yourself you’re never going to achieve your goals,” says Saunders, who left Cal State Fullerton after his sophomore season to play at Cal and was named Pac-10 Player of the Year. “It was tough at times but I always kept faith, coming out every day and trying to improve.”
Saunders gives a lot of credit to his current goalkeeping coach, Ian Feuer, for drilling excellence into him, Ricketts, and No. 3 keeper Brian Perk. The camaraderie instilled has those three working as unit even as they compete against each other for the top spot. Despite the loss of Ricketts to international duty and injuries, the Galaxy posted the third-best goals-allowed mark in league history (0.82) by allowing just 28 goals in 34 games. A strong defense led by Defender of the Year Omar Gonzalez and Best XI honoree Todd Dunivant had a lot to do with it, yet so did the keepers.
“If you look the core group of goalkeepers we have, with [Brian] Perk, Donovan and myself, we’ve supported each other and I think Ian has been the one to keep that going,” says Saunders of Feuer, a native of Las Vegas who played for more than a decade with a dozen clubs in England, Belgium, Wales and the United States. “He keeps everyone motivated and shows that he has faith in everyone. We support each other all the way through.
“In my opinion he’s the best goalkeeper coach in the country. He brings a lot of different things that I’ve never experienced before. He’s played at the high level and knows what it takes, day-in and day-out, for training. With a team of this caliber and the players on this team, it’s always the right environment, and with Bruce heading it up, it’s a good thing. For him to show that faith in me is huge.”