CARSON, Calif. – Josh Saunders was with his Galaxy teammates on a plane to Indonesia for a postseason tour late last year when head coach Bruce Arena told him that fellow goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts had been traded to the expansion Montreal Impact.
The news left him with mixed emotions. Not only was he losing a good friend and teammate – “He made me a better keeper, and I can’t thank him enough for that,” Saunders said -- but he suddenly realized he was the No. 1 man at his position.
The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder had been preparing for this moment since he joined the Galaxy on loan in 2008 and feels not only ready but comfortable that he can handle the added responsibility.
“Absolutely,” he said Tuesday after training. “If I didn’t feel comfortable, I shouldn’t be here.”
Saunders, who turns 30 in early March, came on for the injured Ricketts last June 25 in San Jose but played only 19 minutes before he was red-carded in a game which drew considerable notoriety when midfielder Mike Magee took over as emergency goalkeeper in an eventual 0-0 tie. After serving his one-game suspension, Saunders, who had started seven games to that point of the season when Ricketts was injured or away on international duty, became the full-time starter on July 9 in a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire. He went on to finish the regular season with a 12-2-4 record, eight shutouts and a 0.93 goals-against average while also keeping three clean sheets in the CONCACAF Champions League and helping his team win Group A.
He was even better in the postseason with a 4-0 record, two shutouts, a 0.50 goals-against average and, of course, an MLS Cup title last November.
What once was considered to be a team luxury with Ricketts and Saunders in goal – goalkeeping coach Ian Feuer often said he felt they were the two best keepers in MLS – was no longer cost-effective and thrown into upheaval with Ricketts’ departure. Suddenly the inexperienced Brian Perk, who made his MLS debut in the July 4th match against the Seattle Sounders, was Saunders’ lone backup, leading the club to sign former Fire draft choice Nick Noble from Ljungskile SK in the Swedish Superettan while also extending an invitation to former Columbus Crew netminder Bill Gaudette, who has been brought into camp on trial.
Galaxy players and coaches, however, said there is nothing to worry about.
Feuer said he feels Saunders is ready for his new challenge.
“Last year he got his chance and went with it and kept going with it,” he said. “It was hard to put Ricketts back in. We were winning games, and it’s kind of the old cliché where you don’t change a winning team.
“What I have to do now is let them know I’m not going to settle for anything less than last year. We’re going to work even harder.”
Saunders said that’s fine with him.
“I’m going to approach it the same way I have the last couple of years, coming in just like any other goalkeeper,” he said. “You can’t come in thinking you have all this added pressure and you’re going to be the out-and-out starter.
“You have to work like you’re fighting for a job. There may be a label there, but I’m not going to treat it any other way.”