A Goalie, But Not Always a Keeper

A Goalie, But Not Always a Keeper – David Winner

Michael Lewis

Have gloves, will travel: David Winner’s trials and tribulations

SO YOU WANT TO BE AN American professional soccer player? You can make a living, see the United States, and play the sport you have loved since you were a child, right?

Well, you might want to think again after you hear of the story of David Winner, a goalkeeper who has been around MLS and then some. Through July, he has been on the game-day roster–that’s either played or sat the bench–for nine teams, an MLS record. For the sake of simplicity, the teams Winner hadn’t been a part of through the All-Star break are the MetroStars, Dallas Burn, and D.C. United.

Like it or not, the 30-year-old Winner has a reputation as an emergency backup goalkeeper who is called in on short notice to sit the bench or every once in a while play. It’s great to be wanted, but not so great to be wanted for only a week or 10 days. One member of the MLS office has nicknamed Winner “The Trouble Shooter.”

“My goal is to play at the highest level I can,” says Winner, who toils this season for the A-League’s Indiana Blast. “But you get pigeon-holed.”

Winner is a living definition of the phrase “When one door clothes, another opens.” In June, he received a call from the Miami Fusion to be a backup. Some 15 minutes later, the Columbus Crew called for the same reason. “That’s the story of my career,” he says. “Have gloves, will travel.”

But then he gets serious. “It kind of hurt me in my career because I am so accommodating,” he says. “It’s as if I’m playing a role, not trying to win a position. When you’re with a team in the preseason, you’re out there to win a job. It’s a different mind set. I would love to play in MLS [on a regular basis]. It’s a great league.”

For the record, in 23 MLS matches since 1996 Winner has registered a 2.07 goals-against average and a 9-13 mark. That’s not bad when you consider the teams for which Winner has performed, but it’s not good enough to turn the heads of enough MLS coaches. “The story of my career is and has been the odd-man out,” he says. “It’s unfortunate.”

Winner’s passion for soccer developed almost by accident. When he was five, his father took him to signup for T-ball in Margate, Fla. (near Fort Lauderdale), but it was filled up. Soccer was still open. “Soccer was the only sport I ever played,” he says.

As a high school freshman, Winner hardly looked like a modern keeper–he was only 5’2″. But he shot up a foot over the next four years to fill out the 6’2″, 185-pound frame that he still maintains.

Winner eventually attended the University of Tampa, where he back-stopped the team to the Division II championship under the guidance of coach Tom Fitzgerald. After a year with the Tampa Bay Cyclones in the U.S. Interregional Soccer League, where many future MLS players performed before the advent of the league in 1996, Winner was dying to play at the next level.

He got an opportunity during MLS’s first preseason, when Kevin East broke his wrist and Winner was invited to the Columbus Crew training camp. Fitzgerald was the Crew’s assistant coach at the time. “I was trying like crazy to get into the combine,” says Winner. “It was just a lucky break, no pun intended.”

As a backup to Bo Oshoniyi and then Brad Friedel, Winner had a 2.38 GAA and a 34 record. He remained in that role until 1998, when his odyssey through the league began.

In 1998, Winner sat the bench with the Chicago Fire and New England Revolution, and even played with the Miami Fusion when both of their goalkeepers were injured. Winner won two of three matches, surrendering six goals, but was released. He wound up riding the bench for the Crew in the U.S. Open Cup final when Mark Dougherty was sidelined with a knee injury. “I thought I did very well for Miami,” says Winner. “The equipment manager gave me the goalkeeper’s shirt to keep. Then he took it back, which was quite tacky. Still, that was one of the best experiences I’ve had because I was able to play in front of my friends and family.”

Winner was with four teams in 1999. He was drafted by the Colorado Rapids in the supplemental draft, but when Ian Feuer was added to the team, Winner was history. Then after Tony Meola went down with a knee injury, the Kansas City Wizards put a call out to Winner, who acquitted himself rather well in trying circumstances with a 3-5 mark and a 1.85 GAA. (The Wizards would finish with an 8-24 record that season.)

The highlight of Winner’s K.C. tenure? Easy: a 2-1 loss to the Crew at the new Columbus Crew Stadium. “One side of the stadium got up and cheered me and gave me a big ovation,” says Winner. “The fans gave me an MVP banner.”

But a permanent position with the Wizards wasn’t meant to be. He showed up for a trip and was told he was cut. “I was devastated,” says Winner.

Opportunity knocked again soon. The San Jose Earthquakes and United needed a backup keeper. Winner chose the West Coast team, where he stayed for the remainder of the regular season.

As the playoffs began, he got a call from the Los Angeles Galaxy. Reserve Matt Reis was operated on for a sports hernia, so Winner stayed with the team through MLS Cup, which the Galaxy lost to United, 2-0 “It was tremendous, awesome,” says Winner, who had no delusions that he would play. “I was just fulfilling a role. I feel I contributed in training. I gave 110% of myself.”

Winner found himself a permanent home for the 2000 season–with the A-League’s Connecticut Wolves, who were abysmal. He eventually left for the Atlanta Silverbacks, but not before a 10-day stint with the Tampa Bay Mutiny. He finished the season as the No. 2 man on the Revs as Jeff Causey’s backup.

Winner has lost count of how many coaches he had served. But he admits that one benefit of the job has been the opportunity to play for coaches such as Kansas City’s Bob Gansler and L.A.’s Sigi Schmid. “It’s been great,” he says. “You get to see a lot of different philosophies and people’s skills.”

For now, Winner has found a team–the Blast, which calls Indianapolis home. It may not be MLS, but it is a regular job and paycheck. “I play week in and week out,” he says. “I’m having the most fun I’ve had in a long time. I’m playing the best of my career. I feel very relaxed when I’m playing. For a goalkeeper, the most important thing is to get games.”

Ironically, Winner was ready to hang up his gloves this season and be a goalkeeper coach and operate soccer camps in South Florida. He was playing with friends on Football United, a team in the Gold Coast Soccer League that his parents sponsored. Then he got a call out of the blue from Blast coach Ian Martin, who, ironically, tried to recruit Winner out of high school a decade ago when he coached at Barry University. “I owe a lot to Ian,” says Winner. “When I came up here, it took a little while `to knock my rust off,’ as goalkeeper coach Mike Sanich would say. I’m just beginning to find my form.”

Winner even had a stint as an emergency backup goalkeeper for the Fusion when Nick Rimando was called up for national team duty for a July World Cup qualifier.

After this season, Winner says he might change his course and play overseas, perhaps in the lower Dutch pro leagues. His grandfather comes from the Netherlands, which Winner says would allow him to get Dutch and EU passports. “I know it’s going to be difficult,” says Winner.

Moreover, Winner just wants to continue playing. “I have the rest of my life to coach,” he says. “I’m not going to play forever.”

Winner has resigned himself to that, but in the meantime he’ll play as long as someone, anyone wants him on his team.

And the Winner is …

DAVID WINNER HAS VISITED NEARLY EVERY MLS STADIUM in his meandering career. SOCCER DIGEST asked the veteran goalkeeper to name some of his most memorable spots and moments.

BEST LOCKER ROOM: “I would probably have to say Dallas’ Cotton Bowl because they have a huge locker room. Before the game, I played soccer-tennis in it. The Rose Bowl is another one where you can get a really good soccer-tennis game going.”

BEST COACH: “That’s tough, it would have to be between Bob Gansler and Tom Fitzgerald. Tom gave me an opportunity to play in MLS. But I love Bob. He’s a great coach and a great person.”

BEST STADIUM: “Columbus Crew Stadium. They have the best fans in the league. I’ll never forget what they did for me when I returned to Columbus in 1999, naming me MVP of the game.”

STRANGEST TRIP: Actually, this didn’t occur in MLS, but with the Tampa Bay Cyclones on their return home from the U.S. Interregional Soccer League championships from Long Island in 1995. “On the way home I got left accidentally at a truck stop in New Jersey. Luckily I had my money clip with me. I took a $75 cab ride to Newark and flew home the next day. My roommate, the other goalkepeer–he didn’t realize I was gone until the next day. It was hilarious.”

COPYRIGHT 2001 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group