Before backup goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra entered Sporting Kansas City’s crucial match at Minnesota United (in the 59th minute for injured stalwart Tim Melia) he had three voices in his ear. Assistant Coach Zoran Savic gave encouragement, Goalkeeper Coach Alec Dufty asked what he needed, and Manager Peter Vermes provided advice.
“Everybody had something to say,” said Dykstra.
But the only voice that mattered was … Happy Gilmore’s?
“But, you know, it was like, ‘Just let me go put the ball in the hole,’” said Dykstra, alluding to the 1996 Adam Sandler flick. “’Just let me go out there and play.’”
When Dykstra entered, Sporting Kansas City was up 1-0 and was 31 minutes away from clinching a playoff berth for the seventh straight season. But the home Loons were pressing for the equalizer, and a goalkeeper is always fresh meat for any opponent as they quickly try to test him. Dykstra admitted it was “a little intense”.
Through no fault of Dykstra’s, Minnesota equalized on a header from eight yards out in the 84th minute to gain the draw and steal the full three points from Kansas City.
Tuesday, it was revealed that Melia, arguably the top goalkeeper in Major League Soccer this season, has a right hamstring strain that will keep him shelved for 2-4 weeks during the playoff push and likely into the playoffs that begin on October 25th.
Even though it was Dykstra who was in the 18 on Saturday, and thus got the call to replace the fallen Melia, there is no guarantee that the job is his while Melia heals. Both Dykstra and Adrian Zendejas have been in the match roster as the backup numerous times this season.
“Dykstra did a really good job when he came in. He managed the game really well, especially not having any games…,” said Vermes. “[Adrian] Zendejas has been playing a lot of games with Swope Park Rangers, so we’re going to have to figure it out over here in the next couple games what we’re going to be doing going forward for a while here.”
Vermes preaches habits and routines, lessons that if practiced in training will become natural in even high-pressure situations. Thus, his concern with both ‘keepers is that they are not fully in routine mode. But it is within the routine area that Dykstra has an advantage over Zendejas.
“I’m confident with the games that those guys have gotten at Swope Park Rangers (Sporting’s USL sister club), that they have given them a pretty decent routine,” Vermes stated. “Zendejas has probably gotten more games overall, but Dykstra has a lot more experience. Both players are in a good spot to come in and take the position and run with it.”
Dykstra is seven-year veteran of MLS who has backed up two MLS Goalkeepers of the Year in Jon Busch at Chicago Fire and Bill Hamid at D.C. United. Overall, the Honolulu-born, Virginia Commonwealth University grad, has 11 wins and 9 draws to his credit in 32 MLS appearances. Zendejas has no MLS game experience.
The 31-year-old counts his ability in the air, his size (6’4”, 195 lbs), and his quickness off the line as his strengths. Yet it was his distribution – a key for the way the possession-orientated Sporting KC likes to play – that impressed Vermes the most.
“When he made a save, his distribution in getting the team on the attack was really good,” Vermes emphasized. “He read the game really well. He made good decisions throwing the ball out, coming off his line. He was locked in.”
The ability to launch the attack from a save or goal kick in the most-fitting manner is a skill that Melia has honed, as has Dykstra under the tutelage of Dufty and Vermes.
“Coming from D.C. [United] to here, that part of my game [playing with feet and out of the back] has come a very long way in just a year,” said Dykstra.
Any chance to step and play is an opportunity. This one is another for Dykstra, one that is high-profile being that Sporting Kansas City is chasing the goal they set from preseason: to gain a first-round bye in the playoffs and the home-field advantage in the subsequent away-and-home conference semi-final series. A top-two finish is required, and Sporting has just three matches – beginning Wednesday at Houston Dynamo – to make it happen, and they will have to do it without the possible 2017 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year.
Dykstra could be a savior or a place-holder or a goat.
“I’m not thinking beyond today; I’m just getting my training right,” he said. “There’s no sense in putting extra stress on yourself, and if I take care of today, tomorrow is going to take care of itself.”
“[Wednesday’s match] is an important game, but it’s just another game,” he continued. “It doesn’t change. You are always trying to do your best.”