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Houston's Onstad improving with age
By Marc Connolly / Special to MLSnet.com
Major League Soccer got a little bit younger during the offseason. The retirements of the league's only 40-something star, Preki, the ageless centerback, Robin Fraser, and the MLS version of Bill Russell, Jeff Agoos, surely had to skew the league's median age.
It also firmly placed the burden on Pat Onstad. The Houston Dynamo goalkeeper now has to carry around the title of "the league's oldest player" since he checks in at the grand old age of 38. And, if you ask me, he doesn't look a day over 36.
Kidding aside, this simple fact probably comes as a surprise to many of you out there who might have thought that Carlos Llamosa, Tony Meola or, maybe, Claudio Suarez would be the next in line to be the "Gramps" of MLS.
Nope. Onstad has about a year on both Meola and Suarez, and a year and a half on Llamosa.
"My wife does a good job with the Clairol, what can I say?" says Onstad when told of this news. "Hey, at least I've got Scotty Garlick. If he ever decides to start dying his hair, then I'm in trouble."
Onstad's right, as he hardly looks like one of the older players in MLS. In fact, probably could pass for 30 much easier than 40. (American Idol's 29-year-old gray-haired wonder, Taylor Hicks, would be nervous sitting in the same room as Onstad, no?) Then again, goalkeepers are much like supermodels, Dick Clark and Pelé: They seem to age more gracefully than the rest of us.
"There's no real secret," says Onstad. "I take reasonably good care of myself. I'm not the most fit on my team, but I'm also not the most unfit."
If anything, the two-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year credits the fact that this is only his fourth season in MLS. Had he been in the league since the start, he'd be getting the "old man" treatment from his teammates when he started spinning tales of the 1996 season the way that Chris Henderson and Cobi Jones probably do. But since he's fairly new to the league, it was only last season, he says, that he started to take on more of a mentor role and become a leader for his club.
Should his teammates in Houston do a little research about Onstad, and they'll find that he's been playing for his national team (Canada) longer than Kasey Keller has been playing for his, and has already gone through one retirement.
"I quit the game back in '95," he says. "I taught (physical education) and went and got my 'B' license to coach."
That's actually what Onstad will end up doing, too -- teaching and coaching -- but only when he calls it a career, which might not come any time soon.
"I take each year one at a time," he says. "I've played in the A-League, the Canadian league, the indoor leagues -- so you learn to fly by the seat of your pants a little bit. I still feel sharp and I still feel as though I'm contributing. If I wasn't contributing, I wouldn't want to do it.
"If (Houston Dynamo head coach) Dom (Kinnear) said to me that I wasn't contributing anymore, I would walk away."
Of course, that's hardly the case for Onstad. He's coming off yet another highly-successful campaign with the San Jose Earthquakes that saw him lead MLS in shutouts (12), goals against average (0.97), saves percentage (77.2) and wins (18). For a goalkeeper, that's about as good as it gets, whether it's in MLS or any league in the world.
Even though he has somewhat flown under the radar screen since joining the league, is there another goalkeeper in MLS history that has had as strong of a three-year run as Onstad? Brad Friedel only spent two years with the Columbus Crew, so don't include him. One could argue Tim Howard, but that's about it.
Onstad doesn't expect any accolades or a great deal of respect, though, as his entire team keeps the same sort of "us against everyone mentality." He says it's been the driving force behind the club for as long as he's been there.
"We felt when we were in San Jose that we weren't very appreciated -- not by the fans, but the local businesses as far as sponsorships and all that," he says. "So we always had a bit of a cocoon mentality. That all we had were the people sitting within the four walls of the locker room. That bunker mentality has carried with us here in Houston since we had to pack up and go after the season and didn't even see our locker room until the day before our first game of the season."
What's amazing about Dynamo is how this team continues to play, regardless of records, the best soccer in the league. They move the ball around the park better than any club, and seem to be just a little bit more unselfish than their opponents. It doesn't matter that they've lost Landon Donovan, Richard Mulrooney, Ronnie Ekelund, Jeff Agoos and Danny Califf over the past two seasons, alone. They simply re-load, re-focus and continue to be a major force in the Western Conference.
"We always have a good group, both on and off the field," says Onstad. "It was that way with Frank (Yallop) and it continues with Dom. It's not about having the best players, but having the best group of players. We just always seem to gel."
For the most part that is true. Handling the stereo in the locker room, though, is another matter all together.
"We keep it in the veteran's corner," says Onstad. "On Monday and Tuesday, it's country-western and some arena rock. The rest of the time, the young guys put on rap. That's where the age difference does come in. They walk in with their iPods and all that, while I was pleased with myself for buying a portable CD player last year.
What a crazy old man.
Marc Connolly is the managing editor of ussoccerplayers.com and regularly writes to MLSnet.com. Marc can be reached at [email protected]
. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.