WASHINGTON — It’s a bright, Indian summer morning at the unassuming practice field across C St. NE from RFK Stadium where D.C. United trains. The heat belies the late October date, the approaching playoffs, the colder, harder days ahead and the renewed challenges of the MLS Playoffs. But from his stance on the back line, from which the Black and Red’s playoff hopes rest, goalkeeper Bill Hamid has already cranked his intensity to 11, all systems go, even for a short-field scrimmage among teammates.
“Closer! … Higher! … Help! Help! Help!” he barks out from the back line, directing teammates with their backs to him, positioning them, helping them anticipate where the ball will go next.
D.C. United is often discussed as a team without a superstar. It’s an easy narrative — no player has more than 10 goals (Chris Rolfe) or seven assists (Fabian Espindola). The team has platooned lineups all season long to work around injuries and a packed schedule due to their participation in the CONCACAF Champions League.
But Hamid has been their superstar, just as he was last year, when he made the MLS Best XI. His 75.9 save percentage is the second best in the league this season. He’s pitched shutouts in eight of his 25 starts this year, despite the fact his year was interrupted by a pair of surgeries on his hand and knee in the middle of the summer.
“I would say he’s as recognizable as anyone on this team right now, and rightfully so,” says head coach Ben Olsen. “He’s been as good as anybody over the last couple years. I think he’s OK with that. I think he’s able to handle that. In fact, I think he’s a guy that when the lights come on, he plays better. I think him being the face of the franchise is a healthy thing.”
There doesn’t appear to be any animosity about the idea from Hamid’s teammates.
“It’s a great place to have a superstar,” says veteran defender Bobby Boswell. “He’s a guy that can single-handedly keep us in games.”
But Hamid is poised to become more than just a star in the nation’s capital. If he continues to grow and improve as he has, he could very well be in net for the U.S. Men’s National Team in Russia in 2018.
While Americans might be used to seeing Landon Donovan as the face of American soccer, Tim Howard has been, almost inarguably, the most significant player responsible for Team USA’s runs over the past three World Cups. Howard may not have truly gotten his due on the international stage until his final game, when his transcendent, record-setting performance was the only reason the United States was able to push Belgium to extra time.
But Howard was 35 at the time, meaning he’ll be 39 when the 2018 World Cup rolls around. If Howard is no longer the keeper for the USMNT, he will leave enormous shoes to fill.
Brad Guzan has been the primary keeper for the USMNT since Brazil, but allowed four goals in just seven shots on goal in a blowout, 4-1 loss to Brazil in September, then three more in an extra time defeat to Mexico earlier this month. While those goals certainly weren’t all Guzan’s fault, Howard has never allowed seven combined tallies in consecutive national team appearances in his career.
Hamid has been called up to the National Team a few times, but has seen precious little playing time. It’s the curse of the goalkeeper, with only one spot per game available in most matches. When Hamid did get a start, it was against Ireland, alongside a number of other young, promising players with visions of making the 2018 roster, but with little experience playing alongside each other.
In that game, the U.S. defense did Hamid no favors at the back, putting him in precarious positions several times. Two terrible giveaways led to goals, a third was deflected in off a defender and the fourth came on a brilliantly bent free kick into the top corner.
Hamid has been called up to the National Team again, but hasn’t appeared in a game since.
“I’m really surprised he’s not in there more, to be honest,” says Boswell. “He has some ability that can’t be taught, in terms of being physical, and his shot-stopping. I would definitely say he’s our goalie for the future.”
An Annandale, Virginia native, the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, Hamid won’t be 25 until late November. Focused and intense, he keeps his eyes fixed on the ground in front of him as he speaks about his experience with the USMNT, always stretching, or swaying, or otherwise keeping his body engaged.
“It means the world to me — I’m a proud American,” he says. “This country has done a lot for me in terms of living and my family, and fulfilling my dreams. So getting called up to the National Team means everything in the world to me.”
Even without a ton of playing time, Hamid says he has learned a lot from the more veteran keepers, naming Howard, Guzan, Nick Romando and Casey Keller specifically. He also makes mention of Chris Woods, who was a part of the National Team program goalkeeper coaching staff, now at West Ham United in the English Premiere League.
Other than soaking up knowledge, Hamid knows that all he can do to continue to make an impression is to continue to succeed here in D.C., continue to try to prove he is the best keeper in MLS, continue to validate USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s faith in him.
“I know [Klinsmann] is watching,” Hamid told The Washington Post earlier this year. “I know I am in his plans, but I still have to perform.”
Back on the practice field in Southeast D.C., with only a couple of teammates and coaches watching, Hamid takes part in a drill where he is faced with three shots in quick succession. He launches his 6-foot-3 frame left to deflect the first drive, the ball ticking off his fingertips just wide of the post. Scrambling to his feet, Hamid dives right and punches the ball to safety. But the final shot, a point-blank one times, gets through him to the back of the net. He punches the grass and yells at the earth.
“He holds himself to a different standard than most players his age,” says Boswell. “And he’s earned everything he’s gotten … He’s really grown since I’ve been here and he just seems to get hungrier and hungrier.”
If D.C. United is going to erase the memories of last year’s first-round playoff letdown, if they are going to make a deep run in the MLS Cup, they are going to have to do it the hard way. A disjointed, 5-0 loss at Columbus in the final game of the regular season Sunday erased the possibility of a first-round playoff bye, replaced instead by a win-or-go-home game Wednesday night at RFK against the New England Revolution.
“What went wrong is we had a bad half of soccer in New York,” says Olsen about last year’s playoffs. “If you want to dig deeper, I think there are some things we’re going to do differently as a staff, and I’m sure some of the players would maybe prepare differently down the stretch. But again, the MLS Cup comes down to who’s in form, who gets a bounce, who gets a call.”
Hamid is in a position to erase some of those bad bounces or bad calls, to grab a hold of a piece of luck by the throat and yank it back in his team’s favor. No position has as much power over his team’s fortunes as the last line of defense.
“He’s a guy that, on a day if things aren’t going that well, and you aren’t being as sharp as you can from a defensive standpoint, he can bail you out,” says Olsen. “And that’s a big deal in any league.”
Hamid will have to be better than he was in Columbus, more like he had been the two games prior, when D.C. United beat NYCFC on the road, 2-1, then blanked the Chicago Fire 4-0 in the home finale. They were two of the most complete games the team has played all year, requiring a total of only five saves from Hamid, thanks to an organized defense. Hamid has worked hard on that organization, the communication between lines, and knows it’s simply a matter of getting back to that form.
“It’s all mental, the playoffs,” he says. “It’s a whole different ballgame.”
Hamid is committed to making sure he’s holding up his end of the bargain, setting the example that a superstar needs to set.
“As long as you feel as sharp as possible, and you’re training as hard as possible, you’re in the gym when you need to be, you’re doing the little things you need to do as an individual, when it comes game time, you’re going to do your part as an individual and it’s going to help the team as a whole,” he says.
Done for the day, Hamid is the last player making his way off the field as a staff member shouts back from a golf cart headed back to the stadium.
“Film, Bill?” he says, asking the keeper if he wants to review video after practice. The response is as emphatic as it is immediate.
“Yes!” he nods enthusiastically, taking a beat to reaffirm his decision. “Yes.”