Better Late Than Never
Two days before the USA’s match against Holland on Feb. 18, veteran goalkeeper Kasey Keller turned to his training partner at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam and quipped: “You’re getting a late start!” Never mind late, 29-year-old MetroStars goalkeeper Jonny Walker hadn’t expected a beginning at all.
“When I began my career, I never even thought about the national team,” said Walker. “It wasn’t a realistic option for me. I was a young professional, and I didn’t have much experience.”
That career began with the Memphis Jackals of the United Soccer Leagues in 1992, where the Memphis native spent two seasons. Offered a developmental contract by the Dallas Burn in the MLS inaugural season in 1996, Walker opted to try his luck overseas.
His work permit denied in England, the searching ‘keeper had a contact at Universidad Catolica in Chile. After what amounted to an eight-month trial in which the club only paid his room and board, Walker finally landed on his feet for what would become a six-year journey through the wild world of South American football.
In 2000, Walker displaced Chilean National Team and 1998 World Cup goalkeeper Nelson Tapia for the starting position at Catolica. Two years later, he backstopped the side to the 2002 Chilean Apertura (Spring) National Championship while being named the best goalkeeper of the season. Moving to famed Colo Colo the following season, he played one game in the 2003 Copa Libertadores – South America’s version of the Champions League – posting a 2-2 tie with eventual champion Boca Juniors.
Along the way, the American net-minder became accustomed to the wild nature of passion crazed football. He’s been hit with batteries and rocks, had his name sung by 50,000 fans, and even played 30 minutes with a dog running around the field. It was exactly what he was looking for.
“I’m glad that I have experience in those nasty situations where an entire stadium is so fervently against you,” admits Walker. “Let’s be honest, not many people would want it. But that’s why I went there, and I’m glad I got the opportunity.”
Walker got another opportunity in July of 2003, when Bob Bradley and the MetroStars were suddenly faced with the loss of star goalkeeper Tim Howard to Manchester United. Once again, Walker was presented with a unique circumstance. And once again he dove straight in.
“Every time you come into a new working environment, it’s something different, and this was very unique,” said Walker. “The previous goalkeeper went off to arguably one of the top two clubs in the world. And he was a fan favorite. It wasn’t the easiest of situations, but it was a challenge.”
A challenge he quickly met. Walker made an immediate impact with the Metros, starting all 14 games after he joined the team and earning a league low 0.95 goals against average. Unbeknownst to him, U.S. Manager Bruce Arena was watching. Then the call came.
“Out of the blue I got a phone call from [U.S. MNT General Manager] Pam Perkins telling me I’d be invited to the December training camp,” said Walker. “I hadn’t spoken to Bruce at all. It was a great honor for me. It’s something that every player dreams of. Even though it was just a training camp, I really did look at it as a World Cup final, so to speak. I just tried to keep it simple and hope that I got another call.”
The next call came quickly. On Jan. 18, 2004, at the age of 29, Walker earned his first cap with the U.S. national team in a 1-1 draw against Denmark at The Home Depot Center, the home of the U.S. National Teams in Carson, Calif. After six years of some of the most intense playing environments he could have imagined, he still found something special.
“It was definitely unique,” said Walker. “There are always different situations when you go into games, whether it’s the crowd or the importance of the match. But when you pull on the national team shirt it has a great deal of meaning. Without sounding too cheesy, it makes you feel like an American, and very proud.”
By all accounts Walker had a solid outing. Writers used words like ‘composed,’ ‘experienced’ and ‘confident’--words that would be music to the ears of a coach who might have to throw a goalkeeper into the fire in World Cup qualifying, especially in the hostile environs of Central America.
“When you go into those countries, it’s truly a challenge to pull points away on the road,” said Walker. “It’s something that only players that have had that experience can talk about.”
For the moment, Walker is content to look forward to his starting role with the MetroStars. As the 2004 MLS season quickly approaches, the club is keen to improve upon their disappointing third place finish in the Eastern Conference. And like a seasoned veteran, Walker keeps his goals simple and immediate.
“My goals would be to do well week in and week out with my club,” said Walker. “With the national team, every camp that I am part of I want to give everything I possibly can and hope I keep getting called back. That’s all you can do.”
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