Nashville SC

2020 report card: Joe Willis

Joe Willis photo courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer

Nashville’s GK1 was a Draft Day trade – and not one that was particularly popular. I’d say it worked out OK.

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The expectations

Nashville’s Expansion Draft included plenty of action. The postgame show (so to speak) may have been even more exciting, with a number of trades, including for two keepers. Willis arrived in exchange for Nashville’s second Expansion Draft pick, defender Zarek Valentin. To get your starting keeper for the cost of an Expansion Draft pick is a positive. It also says… not-so-great things about the performance expectations of your keeper.

In his time with the Houston Dynamo, Willis mostly split time with Tyler Deric, with the duo trading off the primary starting role as well as the better performances. Willis had looked… pretty average as an MLS keeper, with shot-stopping close to league averages, and the other aspects of his game solid, but not standout.

More of the same (behind perhaps a better backline) was the expectation going into 2020, then. A guy who was going to make the saves you expect, with a little bit of variance from average mostly coming down to the whims of luck. Playing the vast majority of minutes while Adrian Zendejas snagged a game here and there – particularly during US Open Cup season – and doing well enough was, well, enough.

The Statistical

26 appearances • 2578 minutes

24 goals allowed, 103 shots faced (76.7 save%)
29.67 xG faced (0.81 G/xG allowed)
482/751 passing (64.2% • 65.5% expected)
5.5% of touches on-field

The grade

A-plus.

Uh, yeah. Expectations exceeded. Willis performed well enough to play every minute between the pipes for Nashville (even in a hectic post-pandemic season with as many as three games a week). He also had by far the best season of his career statistically, allowing six fewer goals than you’d expect from the average keeper based on opponents’ shot quality. Certainly playing behind a stronger line helped, but at a certain point the shots that opponents get off against your net are the job you have, and he did it.

He performed so well – and the several-month delay to the season played a role – that the Boys in Gold dealt Zendejas mid-season, knowing that Willis would be good enough to play every minute this year, while Elliot Panicco’s development was on track for future years. A traditional No. 2 keeper was surplus to requirements.

There were aspects of his game that could use some improvement – particularly a wild decision in the opener – including his distribution. That was fine, but Nashville played long more than initially planned this year. His command of the box was very good. Ultimately, keeper is a results-based position, and the outcomes speak for themselves.

The future

With a more-typical season on the way – God willing – the hope has to be that Willis maintains his level while the rest of the team around him gets a little more potent. As I mentioned in Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney‘s report cards, that could mean a little more heat on the goalie as Nashville is more comfortable taking risks forward with the faith that it’s worth risking a goal-against in the name of going for another goal offensively. Given how far above his career level last year’s numbers were, maintaining them would be a massive feat anyway, and “only a slight regression” is the benchmark here.

It’s also likely that Willis gets a bit more rest. Nashville’s roster is more filled out in the keeper department, with a year of experience for Panicco (albeit none on the field), and a veteran backup in the form of Bryan Meredith. A little bit of rest in a less-compressed season might be nice.

There is one major area in which Willis could take a small step forward and really help the team, though. As mentioned above, the plan going into the season had been to build from the back a little bit more. For multiple reasons (a midfield group that put too many MASH-unit minutes in, a striker pool that suffered from similar issues, making a patient build less productive), it wasn’t exclusively Willis’s fault that it didn’t happen, but you could fairly say he was one of the actors in that particular script that caused a less-than-ideal gameplan. Even just a little bit of improvement with his feet – he certainly grew into his leadership and vocal roles over the course of the season – could make for a better team.

The bar is high, and much of the hope for any improvement is based around team-related factors. If Willis repeats last year’s performance (as he turns the calendar to his 34th year in August, no less), it’ll be plenty good enough for the team to hunt for big goals.

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