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Healthy Saunders hoping to carve out starting role with NYC FC

Josh Saunders Real Salt Lake 22

Photo by Douglas C. Pizac/USA Today Sports


Goalkeeper is just one of many positions that New York City FC could look to add to during Wednesday’s MLS Expansion Draft, but they do not necessarily need to find a proven MLS goalkeeper.

They already have that in Josh Saunders.

NYC FC made Saunders its third player signing and first goalkeeper back in July, agreeing to a deal with the 33-year-old free agent who had been sidelined for much of the 12 months prior with an ACL injury. Saunders had many things going for him despite his lengthy layoff from the field, including his bevy of experience in MLS and a familiarity with head coach Jason Kreis.

When Saunders heard about the interest, he jumped at the opportunity. Not only was signing with the 2015 expansion team a chance to help it build something, but also to get back to doing what he loved.

“Just not being able to play, it was hard, but it makes you hungry, it makes you want to fight for what you have even more,” Saunders told SBI in a phone interview last week. “You never take it for granted, because obviously with an injury or whatever it may be, it can be taken from you so fast that every day you go to work you work even harder.”

Saunders suffered the ACL injury on July 13, 2013 while playing for Real Salt Lake in a league game against FC Dallas. He was sidelined for the next six months, forced to rest and rehab before being undergoing his final surgery this past January.

Saunders, who became a free agent in the winter, spent the next three months at Athletes’ Performance in Arizona before returning to Real Salt Lake. While not on a contract with the club, RSL allowed him to train there. The veteran wasn’t playing in any games, but was able to be part of the team atmosphere for the next three months, a setting he cherished.

Just as Saunders was nearing full health, his agent informed him that Kreis was interested in signing the former Puerto Rican international over in New York. Kreis was familiar with Saunders from his days serving as head coach of RSL, and was building up his roster from scratch. Saunders took the deal.

Saunders accepted the deal, joining the club as its third player. He came after the acquisitions of David Villa and Jeb Brovsky, but unlike them, and likely most of the rest of squad, will not have to completely adapt to an unfamiliar coach and playing style.

“I think knowing him is great because I know what his expectations are, and the fact that I played for him,” said Saunders. “I know what to expect, I can help kind of relaying that information to the other players so they know what the expectations are from a player’s standpoint. He’s obviously a very competitive person, a very intelligent coach, and a very successful coach, so what he says everyone is going to listen to.

“As an older player and a more experienced player, I can show the other guys the work ethic and what it takes.”

Saunders could provide leadership and guidance, but he needed some game-time in order to get back to his best. Saunders immediately had an opportunity to do so via a loan from NYC FC to the San Antonio Scorpions. He joined the NASL club shortly after signing for New York City, and played in his first game for the second-division side on July 27.

Saunders immediately stepped into San Antonio’s starting spot, and played in 17 games while leading the Scorpions to an NASL Soccer Bowl title last month. The championship provided another highlight for Saunders, who has won four MLS Cups and a U.S. Open Cup, but also gave him a platform to complete his comeback with a steady dose of competitive minutes.

“I think it was definitely a great stepping stone for me to get back to health,” said Saunders. “It allowed me to play at a good pace, to build on getting stronger and getting fitter and being match-fit. It was difficult initially. Anytime you come back from injury and you’re out for almost a year, it’s hard, but I think it provided exactly what I needed to get back to playing well.”

With the loan now complete and the 2015 MLS season drawing close, Saunders is now set to train at Manchester City, a partial owner of NYC FC. He will practice with the Premiership side until around Christmas before returning stateside.

Afterwards, Saunders plans to head back to Athletes’ Performance before the start of New York City’s preseason in Florida in late January. The 6-foot-4 goalkeeper is hoping that during that time he can get back the “extra 10 percent” he needs to return to his best. Then, he can make a serious case for the starting spot in between the pipes for NYC FC.

“They never went into specifics with me, but I expect open competition,” said Saunders when asked if he was told he’d be the starter. “I play better when I play against (others). I’ve played some of the top goalkeepers, just like when (Donovan) Ricketts was at LA (Galaxy) and having that competition day-in and day-out and playing with Nick (Rimando at RSL) day-in and day out. It only makes you a better player.”

If Saunders does not wind up being the No. 1 between the pipes for New York City, that does not mean he will be unable to make an impact. His experiences in MLS and with Kreis have given him plenty of insight that he can share with young, foreign and even seasoned goalkeepers.

Those intangibles and his ability to mentor are why NYC FC signed him back in the summer, and are traits that Saunders is counting on in his quest to return to MLS as a starting goalkeeper.

“Definitely, that’s what I want, that’s my goal,” said Saunders. “But at the same time it’s just one day at a time. I can control what I can control, work as hard as I can, let the chips fall into place. I can’t be too worried about it. I’ve just got to take it one day at a time.”

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