Friday, December 24, 2010

Pat Onstad: A send-off

When a 42-year old announces his retirement from professional sport it should hardly come as a surprise. It should say something about the agelessness of Pat Onstad, then, that I was somewhat caught off guard by his retirement announcement this week.

Onstad's career was remarkable for its longevity, but it is really the arc of success that he enjoyed which is most staggeringly unusual.

The list of Pat's achievements this decade are impressive:
  • 2003: MLS Goalkeeper of the Year
  • 2003: Starting goalkeeper for MLS Champions San Jose Earthquakes
  • 2005: MLS Goalkeeper of the Year
  • 2006: At age 38, played every minute of every game for MLS Champion Houston Dynamo
  • 2007: Starting goalkeeper for MLS Champions Houston Dynamo
  • 2009: Again played every minute of every regular season match for Houston, posting a goals-against of 0.82.
  • 2010: Final start for Canada against Lionel Messi's Argentina, at age 42!
These honours are made more impressive by the fact that they all began for a man on the wrong side of 35.

What should have been the culmination of his career efforts to that point, signing a deal in Scotland with Dundee in 1999, ended two years later without Pat playing a competitive match in Europe. Instead, Pat returned home and established himself as perhaps the finest MLS goalkeeper ever.

Somehow, even examining my own history with Pat makes me feel old:
  • 1988: Pat earns his first senior cap and clean sheet in a 0-0 draw on February 2nd in Bermuda. I was still in kindergarten.
  • 1992-93: Pat Onstad is the starting 'keeper with the Winnipeg Fury. I watch from the stands, enjoying a free ticket with members of my U12 soccer team.
  • 2000: My only senior national cap is Onstad's 27th, another clean sheet and 0-0 draw as Canada finished off Cuba in World Cup qualifying at the Winnipeg Soccer Complex (future home of WSA Winnipeg).
  • 2008: I look on in horror as Onstad slaps at an Andy Williams corner, inadvertently swatting it into his own net as Canada stumbles to a poor start in World Cup qualifying.
As much as it pains me to do so, I need to talk about that Jamaica goal for a bit. Onstad was harshly criticized, and rightly so, for his play on the goal. He'd be the first to tell you it was a huge mistake. It may not be fair, but it is part of being a keeper. Mistakes tend to be glaringly obvious and are swiftly punished. A poor finishing attempt from a striker, which also costs his team a goal, is quickly forgotten.

Onstad's take on the event, given two years to develop perspective, nails the truth:

"That was probably the lowest point I had playing the game," Onstad said.

"For some reason I think I've always felt the weight of the country on my shoulders when I play," he added. "I enjoy that but at the same token I felt we had an excellent opportunity to maybe do something with that group and that goal weighed heavily in our qualifying.

"In the end I don't think it really meant much but you could argue it set the tone for the rest of qualifying."

Even if he admits that it may have set the tone for a dismal qualifying effort, I will always believe that those efforts were doomed from the start, especially after the only glimmer of hope was extinguished with Radzinski's injury in the following match against Honduras.

If that had remained Pat's final match, it would have been a real shame and somewhat of a dishonour to Pat's service to the national team. For that reason, even though it was a 5-0 loss, Onstad's appearance against Argentina was redemptive. It earned him his 57th cap, surpassing Craig Forrest for most among Canadian keepers. It provided him with the greatest of stages to make his national team exit. It provided fodder for more age-related amazement: for example, he was more than twice the age of then 19-year old Adam Straith, who also featured in the match and was part of the Twinkle in his Father's Eye XI when Onstad earned his first cap in 1988.

If that's not enough, marvel at this chart of Onstad's national team contributions, organized by age.

under 25 11 945
age 25 to 29 5 358
age 30 to 34 21 1891
age 35+ 23 1980

Onstad will move on to the coaching ranks at DC United, but hopefully there is a place within the Canada setup for him some day as well.

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