D.C. United's Bill Hamid aiming for breakout year in MLS' 20th season
MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. -- Some of the biggest names in Major League Soccer made the rounds Tuesday at a media event put on by the league in advance of its 20th season.
Former Ballon d'Or winner Kaka was in the house. So was Bradley Wright-Phillips, who tied the single-season scoring record last year with 27 goals, as well as several starters from the U.S. team that captured the country's imagination during its run to the second round at last summer's World Cup in Brazil.
To a man, they were engaging. They listened to questions carefully and answered them thoughtfully and honestly.
When it was over, though, there was no dispute about who the star of the day had been: Bill Hamid, the 24-year-old D.C. United goalkeeper with just two international caps to his name, stole the show with a disarming mix of humor, articulation and affability. Take this exchange with one reporter.
Question: "Everybody is talking about the improvement of the quality of the [global] game. As a goalkeeper, do you feel that keepers are improving too?"
Answer: "Well, I'm from America, sir. I don't know if you've heard, but we have some of the best goalkeepers this world has ever seen," Hamid deadpanned.
Then, before the laughter in the conference room had subsided, he launched into his real response.
"Yes, goalkeepers are getting younger and better," Hamid said, singling out English Premier League sensations Thibaut Courtois and, in particular, Manchester United's Spanish ace, David de Gea.
"They say keepers don't hit their prime until they're 30. Well hell, this guy is 24 and he's an early candidate for EPL goalkeeper of the year. So don't tell me that I've still got time. I want my time to be now."
It could well be.
Hamid, already into his seventh year as a pro, is the reigning MLS goalkeeper of the year -- also at 24. He's also now established himself as the clear heir to Tim Howard and Brad Guzan as the next great American backstop, to the point where U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann started him ahead of Guzan and longtime No. 3 Nick Rimando in November's 4-1 loss at Ireland.
The game was ugly for the Yanks, but the experience represented an invaluable step in the youngster's development.
"That was an amazing learning experience, regardless of result," Hamid said. "It was eye-opening. I was definitely prepared for that match. What I wasn't prepared for was the pace of the international game."
Hamid was critical of his performance immediately after the tilt, even if Klinsmann absolved him of blame.
"Those four goals weren't his fault," said the coach in Dublin.
But Hamid still spent the months since scrutinizing everything he could have done better, such as coming off his line to prevent Ireland's early opener.
"I've watched the game at least over 50 times, I kid you not," Hamid said. It's not the only soccer he's been watching. Of late, he's been glued to, among other things, Asian Cup, the African Nations Cup and the American team's attempt to qualify for this summer's U-20 World Cup.
"When I first started in 2009 I wasn't watching soccer, I was going to the mall. I was 18," he said. "Now, I'm a [true] professional. You need to watch this stuff. You need to know who you're going up against to know how they play."
Hamid's growing maturity, attention to detail and desire to improve bodes well for D.C. this season, and the U.S. team down the road -- maybe sooner than later.
And even in a league that has added star power in droves this offseason, his personality is a breath of fresh air.
Here are some more highlights from media day:
MLS admirer Kaka looking forward to playing with expansion club Orlando City
In his first meeting with members of the national media, Kaka revealed that, yes, he had been in talks with the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls at various points in the past, before agreeing to join expansion Orlando City ahead of its debut.
Being there from the first day of the club's life in MLS will be a different experience for the Brazilian, who has only represented iconic teams steeped in history and tradition during his career.
"I played in Milan, Real Madrid and Sao Paulo -- big teams in their countries and also around the world," Kaka said. "And so now it's a different moment. To start with a new team, a team that will be born in the league, I think will be a big challenge. But I think it will be great."
Kaka has always wanted to play in the United States, he said. But he still did his due diligence, seeking out the counsel of his countrymen in the league before signing on the dotted line last summer.
"Every Brazilian I've spoken to has said very good things," he said. "They love it."
Still, there will surely be an adjustment period as Kaka gets used to the travel, the different weather from city to city and the style of play. Something else that will take some getting used to is playing on artificial turf.
"For me it will be a new thing because I think I played just once, in Russia, in Champions League," he said. "But I think it won't be a problem. I can do it."
He'll have to do it often: The Lions will play their first season on the Citrus Bowl's plastic surface before moving into their own custom-built stadium in 2016.
Wright-Phillips surprised by changes at the New York Red Bulls
Like New York Red Bulls fans, Wright-Phillips never saw now-former coach Mike Petke's firing coming.
"I don't think I heard [any rumors] during the season," Wright-Phillips said. "At the beginning, when we weren't doing very well, I might have heard someone say -- not anyone important -- he might go if we don't win this game. So yeah, it surprised me."
So did the retirement of Thierry Henry, Wright-Phillips said. But the 27-goal scorer also believes that in a funny way, losing Henry could actually help the Red Bulls in 2015.
"The games we played when Thierry wasn't there, it made players step up, because you can't depend on Thierry to get you out of a situation," he said. "How I'm going to look at it is, to take more responsibility on the pitch."
But he also wanted to be clear: just because he signed a new, rich designated player contract recently, doesn't mean he'll suddenly become a different player.
"I told them in the interview at the end of the season, don't expect any wonders," he said. "You're going to get what you got from me last season: running hard, working hard, trying to score goals. That's exactly what I did this [past] season. If they're expecting me to be Thierry Henry, I can tell you right now they will be disappointed."
Asked for his take on the noisy neighbors, Wright-Phillips admitted that he's already looking forward to facing expansion NYCFC for the first time -- a match he suggested could set the tone for the rivalry for years to come.
"That game has to be high scoring, a lot of hard tackles, one or two fights," he joked. "Then the next fixture will take care of itself."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.