Hamid becomes a student of the game

By Paul Kennedy

Like most good goalkeepers, D.C. United's Bill Hamid will tell you the biggest improvement he has made is how he reads the game.

"You've got to beat the play to the punch" is how he sums up a keeper's job.

But before he learned how to read the game, he needed to start following the game.

"I realized it a little too late," says Hamid. "Because when I first started in 2009, honestly, I wouldn't watch any soccer. I was still hanging out at the malls. I was 18 years old. I was going to training. I was waiting for my friends to get out of school. I was going shopping. I had a little money in my pocket. I was a professional. I'm going to the movies. I'm going to the food court. Stuff that I didn't have the opportunity to do when I was a kid."

Now, Hamid realizes what it means to be a professional.

"You need to watch this stuff," he said. "You need to know who you're playing against. You need to know how they play."

How he goes about watching soccer isn't much different than how you or I do.

"I call my cable company," he says, "and say, 'Any soccer channel, make sure I get it. If I don't have it, I'm canceling.'"

Hamid watches anything and everything. As he was being interviewed at a roundtable of national media MLS had arranged in mid-January, he had the trifecta of special viewing options: the Concacaf U-20s, Asian Cup and African Cup of Nations. If he's bored, Hamid can pull out his DVD of the Ireland-USA friendly from last November.

"I've watched the game at least 50 times, I kid you not," he said.

Talk about a glutton for punishment. Hamid says the 4-1 loss for the USA -- his first cap since January 2012 -- was an eye-opening experience. On the first goal, Anthony Pilkington finishes off a rapid counterattack.

"I am too deep," says Hamid. "I read it too late. If I'm a little higher and I read it a little faster, I can probably clear that ball off his feet before he gets to the 18."

Hamid says his reading of the game has been his area of biggest improvement since turning pro as United's first Homegrown signing at 18 in 2009: "Just seeing what's about to happen and try to put out the fire as quickly as possible, helping my teammates out as well, trying to speak to them before the trouble comes instead of the trouble comes, now tell them what they did wrong."

In his fifth MLS season, Hamid was playing behind a whole new backline at D.C. United: Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum and Taylor Kemp, the latter two mid-season replacements for Jeff Parke, who was injured and Cristian Fernandez, who returned to Spain. Only Kemp had been with United in 2013 and he played just eight MLS games in a season split between the MLS club and its USL affiliate in Richmond.

Hamid credits all his defenders, but Boswell in particular for the success United had in 2014 as it finished first in the regular season in the Eastern Conference to complete a worst-to-first turnaround after it set an MLS record for futility, winning just three games in 2013.

"Having Bobby back there was an amazing pickup for us," says Hamid. "We needed someone like that there, especially after losing Dejan [Jakovic] to Japan. We needed that veteran presence and Bobby brought that. We needed organization in the back."

Hamid, who was named MLS's Goalkeeper of the Year, says D.C. United got much better at how it prepared for games, from the first day of training at the beginning of the week to gameday.

"The organization, the tactics, the approach from the players on a daily basis," he says. "You could tell guys came into the locker room focused for training, made sure they did the things they needed to do in training, worked in the gym and watched film religiously. All those little things helped. All those small details we took care of but didn't necessarily take care of the previous year led to the success we had in 2014."

D.C. United’s 43-point swing from 2013 to 2014 was the largest in MLS history.

"Coming off of 2013," he said, "to come into 2014 was like being in heaven. 2013 was absolute hell. It was terrible. We won the Open Cup. That's an amazing positive. But to finish in dead last place. To break records that no athlete ever wants to break, it was tough. 2014 for me and the club was an amazing year, a successful year regardless of no silverware."

That success extended to the international stage. D.C. United was the only U.S. MLS club to win its group in the 2014-15 Concacaf Champions League and will face Alajuelense of Costa Rica on Thursday. Win or lose against Alajuelense in their quarterfinal series, United will be back in the Concacaf Champions League as the only MLS club to return to the group stage for the 2015-16 season.

A shoulder injury kept Hamid out of January camp. He wants to avoid surgery at all costs as the memory of sitting more than six months in his rookie season following shoulder surgery still haunts him.

"I know the struggles," he says, "so I want to avoid another surgery. I don't like sitting."

Most goalkeepers are only breaking in at the age of 24, but Hamid already has 120 MLS games (regular season and playoffs) under his belt. He sees it as a trend.

"Goalkeepers are getting younger and better around the world," he says. "You've got guys like [Thibaut] Courtois and [David] de Gea. They say keepers don't hit their prime until they're 30. Well, hell, this guy is 24 and he's an early candidate for EPL goalkeeper of the year, this guy de Gea. So don't tell me that I've still got time. I want my time to be now."
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