CARSON -- If it seems Josh Saunders has come from nowhere to save the Galaxy again and again this season, Landon Donovan understands.
The Galaxy's No. 2 goalkeeper had seen far more action from the bench than in between the posts during his Major League Soccer career, at least before Donovan Ricketts ran into one thing after another. When opportunity fell his way, Saunders latched hold.
On a team filled with unsung heroes, Saunders might be the most pivotal on L.A.'s path to next Sunday's MLS Cup final against the Houston Dynamo at Home Depot Center. He has backed steady play with phenomenal reflex saves, winning the No. 1 job in the nets -- even with Ricketts healthy again.
Saunders has played every minute in 21 of L.A.'s last 24 competitive matches, taking the reins from MLS's 2010 Goalkeeper of the Year and providing a foundation for the Galaxy's run to a second straight Supporters' Shield, first place in their CONCACAF Champions League group, and through three postseason victories.
“For most people watching, this is sort of an aberration and came out of nowhere,” said Donovan, the Galaxy's captain. “We've seen it for years. ... Over the last two years, he's as good as [Ricketts] is in every way. It was just a matter of him getting his chance.”
He has been rock-steady and often brilliant since that chance arrived, with Ricketts' departure at the end of May for the CONCACAF Gold Cup and his broken arm in his first game upon returning in late June. Saunders played nearly twice as many games this season than Ricketts, all competitions, and posted a 0.93 MLS goals-against average -- second-best in the league, to Ricketts' 0.77 -- while rarely conceding anything remotely soft.
“Confidence has been a big thing,” said Saunders, 30, who bounced in and out of MLS for several years before Bruce Arena brought him in shortly after taking L.A.'s reins near the end of the 2008 season. “Consistency with playing week in and week out the past part of the season has helped. That just brings a little more of a comfort level, where you feel more comfortable catching balls or accepting back passes and playing them out. It makes things seem a little cleaner.”
BIG SAVES: He has been clean. Just ask Chad Marshall, whose header should have lifted Columbus past L.A. in September. Or Patrick Nyarko, who might have given Chicago the points that pointed toward the playoffs if not for Saunders. Or Joel Lindpere, who watched helplessly as Saunders somehow slapped away his volley to preserve the Galaxy's lead in the playoff opener. Or another few dozen shooters in MLS, Mexico and Central America left shaking their heads.
“Josh has been in the background for the last couple of years,” noted veteran defender/assistant coach Gregg Berhalter, “but every time he's played, he's done well, and every time he's played, you hear the same things from us, that there's not much of a difference when [Ricketts] is in there or Josh is in there. We feel just as comfortable -- and you're seeing it now. The guy's a very talented goalkeeper.
“Think of the situations he's been in, having to come off the bench or [not playing for] six weeks and coming in. This guy's been through everything, and he's resilient, and he shows what a class act he is and what a good goalkeeper he is, and we've been saying that for years.”
Saunders (Lake Forest/El Toro HS) came to MLS in 2003, when San Jose drafted him out of Cal, but saw far more time the next five years in with second-division clubs (139 games for the Portland Timbers, Puerto Rico Islanders and Miami FC) than in MLS (one Reserve League appearance, in 2005, with the Galaxy).
Arena bit after Saunders impressed mightily with Miami in 2008, bringing him to L.A. on loan for the final month of the season, then signing him as Ricketts' backup in 2009. The 6-foot-2 keeper got into just 11 league games through last season, making his biggest statement when Ricketts was hurt in the 2009 MLS Cup final, coming off the bench to shut out Real Salt Lake before the Galaxy succumbed in a penalty-kick tiebreaker.
AILING RICKETTS: The real opportunities arrived as this season kicked off. Ricketts was sidelined the first three games because of a hamstring injury, so Saunders got the call -- he was terrific in the opening-day win over Seattle, denying Fredy Montero three times -- and again in mid-May when Ricketts fell ill. The Gold Cup provided three more chances to impress, and then Ricketts, on a bizarre play in an even more bizarre scoreless draw at San Jose, broke a bone in his left arm in a collision with Khari Stephenson.
Saunders came on, was red-carded in an odd confrontation after just 19 minutes in the June 25 match, and midfielder Mike Magee pulled on the gloves and kept San Jose goalless for a little more than a half.
Third-stringer Brian Perk (Rancho Santa Margarita/Tesoro HS) made his MLS debut the next game, but Saunders returned from suspension in sizzling form. He notched five shutouts in 10 straight appearances, including Champions League shutouts against Honduras' Motagua and Costa Rica's Alajuelense, stepped aside when Ricketts returned in September, then was back in the nets when a quadriceps injury sent the Jamaican back to the bench.
He convinced Arena and his staff that he should be No. 1 with superb showings in the next six games, including three tough Champions League clashes. How he responded after surrendering two late, soft goals in a loss at Morelia was most telling.
Ricketts has played just twice since, when Arena sent a reserve lineup into matches at New York and Houston, both of them Galaxy losses.
“Not an easy decision [to keep him No. 1] given that Ricketts is now healthy, but I think Josh has been in better form this time of year, and he's gotten the nod,” said Arena, a goalkeeper in his playing days. “I think getting to play on a more consistent basis has helped his confidence and decision-making in the goal.”
Ricketts clearly is disappointed, but the soft-spoken veteran's response has been to throw everything he has into training -- to help his standing, and Saunders', too.
WHY CHANGE? “One of the things with Ricketts, the amount of respect he has for Josh and vice-versa,” said Galaxy goalkeeper coach Ian Feuer, a former pro who played in England, Belgium, MLS (for New England and Colorado) and for one memorable season with the L.A. Salsa. “When Bruce told Donovan that we're going to go with Josh for the playoffs, of course, he was disappointed, because he's a professional. But the respect was just immense.
“He says, 'Josh is playing amazing. Of course, I want to play, but why would you want to change it?' He says, 'That would be a selfish thing.' He says, 'As a team, we've got to do what's best for the team, and right now [Saunders has] the momentum, he's playing the majority of the games, and I've been injured.' For him to have that attitude is amazing.”
Saunders credits the work with Feuer, Ricketts and Perk for everything he has done (“It's all preparation; the stuff we do every day with Ian, it's all come to fruition”) and gushes about daily sessions with a goalkeeper of Ricketts' ability (“It keeps the standard extremely high, brings your level of concentration up”).
His success doesn't surprise teammates, who believe, Donovan says, that the Galaxy has “two of the top three, four, five goalkeepers in the league on our roster.”
“It's unlucky for Josh that he didn't play more games,” defender Todd Dunivant said, “because I think he should have been up for a lot of consideration for Goalkeeper of the Year. ... You can't say how important that is when you have a guy like Donovan Ricketts go down, to have a guy like Josh step in and take over those reins, not only fill those shoes but thrive in them, is really impressive.”
Saunders is just thankful for the opportunity.
“The circumstances were unfortunate, with Donovan breaking his arm and getting injured again later,” he said. “You never want that to happen. ... But this [is rewarding]. Even from first days of playing in the [second division], I look back, and it's the opportunity. Bruce gave me the opportunity to come in here and play, and I can't thank him enough for that."
Well, perhaps he can. Come Sunday against Houston.