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Pat Onstad Retires: Adieu to the Greatest Goalkeeper who Almost Wasn't

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HOUSTON - MAY 29:  Goalkeeper Pat Onstad #18 of the Houston Dynamo goes up for a save against the Philadelphia Union at Robertson Stadium  on May 29, 2010 in Houston, Texas. Philadelphia won 3-2.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON - MAY 29: Goalkeeper Pat Onstad #18 of the Houston Dynamo goes up for a save against the Philadelphia Union at Robertson Stadium on May 29, 2010 in Houston, Texas. Philadelphia won 3-2. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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So, farewell then Pat Onstad.

At times like this, it is traditional for fans to tell the world what they'll remember about the dearly departed player. Great saves, fantastic moments, awards well-deserved. Well, my list of Pat Onstad memories is a pretty one-sided one: some iffy performances playing indoor for the Edmonton Drillers and seemingly one hellacious gaffe per Canadian tournament. Just earlier this year, Onstad got his last start for the Canadian national team for a friendly in Argentina and allowed five goals. His most recent previous experience was a key World Cup qualifier at home against Jamaica where he punched a corner into his own goal to cost us two points. No, my tribute to Pat Onstad would not be an affectionate one.

But I also can't deny that he was one of the most successful Canadians to ever play the game professionally. He had a formidable career, both long and magnificent. He won enough honours that you'd need a pickup truck to move them all. He is a sure-fire first ballot member of the Bad MLS Haircuts Hall of Fame. He's also classy, intelligent, one of the hardest workers in any sport, and seems almost certain to be a success in his new role as a coach with DC United. I wouldn't bet against his coaching career being even longer than his playing career, and that's not just because when you bet against Pat Onstad, you usually lose.

As a Canadian national team supporter, it's hard not to dwell on the negative when looking at Onstad's career. But I should at least try. It was a remarkable career, maybe the most remarkable in recent Canadian history. He played at a high level for a thousand years and retires as the most-capped goalkeeper in Canadian history. All this from a guy who was fighting to share minutes in Canadian indoor soccer at one point.

It was a remarkable career, and he was a remarkable goalkeeper.

So much of Onstad's success came from simply outlasting those intended to supplant him. Craig Forrest is by consensus the greatest goalkeeper and probably the greatest player in Canadian history, and when Forrest was playing Onstad had no chance. But Forrest's career was ended by testicular cancer, and there was Onstad. Other goalkeepers came and had their chances: Greg Sutton in particular, still loitering around MLS as a backup, but Onstad remained. Lars Hirschfeld, our most extraordinary athletic goalkeeper since Forrest, blew onto the scene but it took until the summer of 2008 for Onstad to finally give way.

Meanwhile, at the club level, how many seasons did Houston Dynamo fans spend asking themselves "how much longer will Pat play?" They've been asking that question ever since I became a fan of Major League Soccer. Onstad was considered a veteran goalkeeper near the end of his rope when the Dynamo moved from San Jose, and that was half a decade ago. Onstad only came to MLS when he was 35, moving up a division after starring for the old Rochester Raging Rhinos, grabbing one last big-league paycheque before riding into the sunset. Or not. In his dotage, Onstad only won three MLS Cups, a Supporters Shield, and two MLS best goalkeeper awards. He accomplished more after the age of 35 than most goalkeepers accomplish in a lifetime.

He got to those lofty heights from the most unexalted beginnings. Early in his career, Onstad was a Canadian journeyman. A 19-year-old Onstad left the University of British Columbia to sign with the old Canadian Soccer League's Vancouver 86ers in 1987. But that would be Onstad's only professional stop in his hometown: from then he moved on to the Winnipeg Fury, later the Toronto Blizzard, and then Winnipeg again. It was only in Toronto that Onstad established himself as a legitimate starter, and on his return to Winnipeg he won his first major individual honour as CSL goalkeeper of the year with the champion Fury.

Yet his career stalled as the CSL did. Brief tours in the American Professional Soccer League with Toronto and Montreal proved nothing, and Onstad struggled to get more than occasional platoon duty. He was reduced to playing indoor soccer with the Edmonton Drillers of the semi-professional National Professional Soccer League, where 28-year-old Onstad played well but not spectacularly. In what ought to have been the prime of his career, Onstad was earning a small paycheque before the enthusiastic but modest crowds of the Edmonton Drillers faithful. Many professional players in such a situation would have given up, accepted that the dream would never come true, and gone off to sell mufflers while doing a little coaching on the side.

But it was always Onstad's hard work and intelligence, rather than his athleticism, which made him a success. He stuck to the game. His play in Edmonton was enough to impress the Toronto Lynx, who were coming into the league in 1997 under head coach Peter Pinizzotto and were in dire need of a goalkeeper. Onstad signed on with the Lynx, helping them to a surprise playoff appearance (one of only two they would ever achieve as a professional club). Onstad had impressed all the right people. The Rochester Raging Rhinos poached him from Toronto after the 1997 season. Pat Onstad was thirty years old when he first played for Rochester, but his career was finally off and running.

It's stuff fit for a sports movie. Onstad was one of the league's leading goalkeepers in Rochester, so good that he even earned a contract from the Scottish Premier League's Dundee United (though he never played). His return to Rochester from Scotland was no less successful, and Canadian head coach Frank Yallop tapped Onstad to replace semi-Canadian, and another name familiar to Vancouverites, Joe Cannon. There were down moments in Onstad's career, particularly internationally. He was a member of the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup-winning Canadian squad, but sat on the bench as Craig Forrest played the tournament of his life. Though he won fifty-seven caps, very few will be remembered fondly by the Canadian faithful.

It doesn't matter. Not really. Onstad had a marvelously successful professional career when it looked like he never possibly could. He exploited his natural gifts to the fullest, never stopped working, and in the end lived the life us fans watching from home could only dream of. Through all the success, he was always classy, intelligent, and modest. I may not have been happy to see him playing for my national team, but I was always happy to see Pat Onstad playing.