Houston Dynamo: Onstad still on top

He'd waited more than a decade for his first real chance at the big time and when it came, Pat Onstad almost literally threw it back.

The date; April 19, 2003. The place: Spartan Stadium in San Jose for the Quakes home opener. The setup: Kansas City and San Jose playing on the second weekend of the eighth MLS season.

The time: 74th minute. The situation: Wizards' corner kick. The play: a bending ball, of course, by, who else, Preki. The result: a goalie own goal of staggering ineptitude.

"To replace Joe Cannon was big shoes to fill, and to be honest with you, the players were kind of wondering, 'Can Pat really do that?'" remembers midfielder Richard Mulrooney of the Quakes (1996-2005 version) first home game following the departure of 2002 Goalkeeper of the Year Cannon. "We'd seen keepers and field players come in and not necessarily succeed and go back to the A-League. Pat came in and in that first [home] game gave up a very unlike-Pat goal that he put into his own net."

The 6-foot-4 Onstad rose to take the corner but bobbled it back up into the air. Still, a simple catch seemed imminent; instead the flustered Onstad snatched at the ball and batted it into the vacant goal.

On the ugly meter this one rated grotesque.

At that moment, the decision of head coach Frank Yallop - who had played with Onstad on the Canadian national team - to buy him from Rochester looked rather shaky.

"What every player looks for is a coach who believes in you and gives you an opportunity and allows you to make those mistakes," says Onstad, who has made precious few errors in the five years since that match, which San Jose rallied to tie, 1-1. "Maybe not that big a mistake, but by the same token he has faith in your ability."

Onstad rewarded that faith by backstopping San Jose's march to the 2003 title, and duplicating Cannon's honor as top keeper. He won another Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2005, the team's final season in San Jose, and in the past two seasons has anchored Houston's back-to-back championships during which the Dynamo conceded just a goal a game (counting playoffs, 70 games played, 70 goals allowed).

"His training methods are excellent,' says Dynamo assistant coach John Spencer. "He comes in and works hard and after practice you see him stretching. He's a good professional to have around the locker room and it rubs off on a lot of the younger guys.

"You look at him, 40 years old, and he's a great leader and a great professional. When you get enough guys like him around the place, you've always got a chance of winning games and winning championships."

Last year, Houston set league records by allowing only 23 goals and shutting out opponents for 727 consecutive minutes. Voters picked Chivas USA keeper Brad Guzan as Goalkeeper of the Year, depriving Onstad of a third award, which would move him one ahead of Cannon as the all-time leader.

That may matter to a lot of people, and maybe a few goalkeepers, but not Onstad.

"I think he's deserved more credit but you'll never hear that out of him," says Mulrooney, a former San Jose teammate who rejoined Onstad in Houston last season after playing in Dallas and Toronto.

"He'd rather show you the [three] championship rings on his fingers. He puts the team first and never do you hear anything selfish coming out of his mouth. We're fortunate to have him. He's the best keeper in the league in my mind."

Advocates of Matt Reis, Kevin Hartman, Bouna Coundoul and Guzan may dispute that. Hartman has won two titles (2002, 2005), one Goalkeeper of the Year and is the only keeper to play in four MLS Cups. Reis has played in three finals.

A goalie's stats are shaped by how solid is the team that plays in front of him. Goals-allowed averages and shutouts, in particular, are just as much a function of team play as goalkeeper performance.

Onstad's career mark of 1.07 goals-allowed per game (prior to the 2008 season) tops that category, yet his most valued trait is a knack for snuffing the opposition at critical moments.

"It's great when you can keep your goalkeeper quiet for a big part of the game," says Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, "but that's another great thing about Pat. Lots of times he didn't have a lot of action but then when he was called upon, he was always in focus and in tune with the game."

That Onstad made it to MLS at all is something of a story in itself. He turned 40 in January and by doing the math it can be determined his debut came at age 35, which even for a goalkeeper, is leaving it pretty late to arrive in the top flight. And Onstad, who is rather mild-mannered on the field compared to most of his colleagues, raised hell to get where he is.

"At that stage, I had one more year on my contract with Rochester and after that I was thinking about hanging them up," remembers Onstad of severing his association with the A-League's flagship franchise. "The Rhinos, who had just sold Scott Vallow to Colorado, didn't want to lose another keeper to MLS. I had to sit down with all three of the Rochester owners and hash it out. I kind of let my feelings be known I wasn't going to be happy with them stopping what was essentially my final opportunity to play at a higher level. I was definitely riled up in that meeting."

Onstad, who grew up in Vancouver, had knocked around soccer leagues on both sides of the Canadian border prior to joining Rochester more than a decade after his pro debut in 1987.

He started in the Canadian Soccer League, playing in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto. Onstad reached the A-League in 1994 but had grown tired of the low wages and decided to retire and teach. He'd earned dual degrees in human kinetics and education at the University of British Colombia, and the money, unfortunately, was about the same, and the workload was worse. He came back to the A-League in 1997 to play for the Toronto Lynx.

"I kind of got sucked back into it," he says. "I realized it was a little bit easier, in terms of your hours, playing soccer rather than teaching. Unfortunately, I wasn't earning much money playing soccer, but it was probably about as much as I earned teaching.

"It was fun. I loved it. In the end, whether it's coaching or teaching, that's what I'd like to do when I finish."
That now seems a ways off. He went to Rochester in 1998 and the following year the Rhinos did the double by capturing the A-League championship and winning the U.S. Open Cup by beating MLS contestants Chicago, Dallas, Columbus, and Colorado along the way.

MLS teams inquired about his rights, but in November 1999 Rochester sold him to Scottish club Dundee United for 60,000 pounds ($100,000), Dundee United manager Paul Sturrock needed someone to right the ship during bad run of form for starter Paul Combe. That was the theory, anyway.

"By the time I got my work permit after waiting about six weeks, he had kind of turned his form around and had a good year," says Onstad. "I had to sit on the bench the rest of that season. The next season [2000-01] he struggled early and so did the team and I thought I'd get my opportunity but Sturrock resigned and after about a week the new manager [Alex Smith] was trying to force me out."

According to Onstad, Dundee United at first agreed to let him go on a free transfer to FC Copenhagen, but after he'd agreed to a contract with manager Roy Hodgson, the club insisted on a transfer fee of 150,000 pounds and the deal collapsed.

"I never played for Dundee United but somehow my value had gone up," he says with some sarcasm. "Four months later, I was back in Rochester, so that was probably the biggest disappointment I had being over there."

More disappointment, and bitterness, greeted him in North America. He suffered a broken wrist and played just two games in 2001. The following season, Onstad performed superbly, winning team MVP honors with a 0.75 goals-allowed average, 10 shutouts, and a 13-5-2 record. But soon enough he'd clash again with management.

"We had a gentleman's agreement that they were going to let me go,' says Onstad. "After they sold Scott, they said, 'We're not going to let you go.' So I said, 'Well I might retire and not play next season.'

"We had a bit of a back and forth. Me and [general manager] Chris Economides were really yelling at each other. Then when Jon Conway broke his leg, San Jose paid $50,000 for me and got the deal done like overnight. It wasn't really about principle, I think it was about money."

Like Mulrooney, former Rapids midfielder Spencer much prefers to be on the same team as Onstad.

With Onstad's size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), quick reflexes and vast experience, goals don't come easy. With his long arms, he snags crosses many keepers flail to even touch, and he fills a lot of the frame.

"My method was to look at the goalkeepers I was going to face in the up-and-coming game," says Spencer, "and one thing for sure when you were facing Onstad - even back then and it hasn't really changed now - if you're going to finish, you'd better be sure to finish to the best of your ability. If not, there's a good chance he's going to save it and keep a clean sheet on you."

Last summer, injuries to Canada's goalkeepers prompted a recall for the Gold Cup. He had debuted for Canada in a 0-0 tie with Bermuda in 1988, and in 2000 was a member of Canada's Gold Cup-winning team. He upped his caps total to 52, second on Canada's all-time list among keepers.

"Pat had a great run and Canada had a good tournament," says Kinnear of Canada's semifinal finish in 2007. "The summer was busy and it was good to see that not only did he go, but he did well and Canada succeeded, partly because he was there."

Onstad's advanced age, which prompts teammates to call him "Old Man," requires some sacrifices. He has to temper a fondness for pizza and ice cream but doesn't necessarily abstain

"Those are tough ones to avoid," he admits. "I'm kind of legendary for wolfing down a milkshake here and there."

In both of the last two MLS Cups, Onstad saves changed the game and denied New England goals at crucial stages.

In 2006, he turned away a Taylor Twellman header that would have given the Revs a 1-0 lead in the first half. The 2007 game is defined by his courageous block of a point-blank Jeff Larentowicz header in the final minutes, yet in the opening seconds of the first half he had also snuffed Pat Noonan on a clean breakaway with the Revs leading, 1-0.

He's noncommittal about how much longer he can play. So is Kinnear.

"I don't know," says Onstad. "I really take it year to year, and did that even before I came to MLS. Dom took over [from Yallop] in '04 and said, 'You know, I probably see you this season, maybe one more.' Now he says, "I think I'll just give you the same speech I did last year.'"

(This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

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