Billy Heavner's life in limbo in Major League Soccer as a 'pool goalkeeper'
Billy Heavner is in goalkeeper limbo.
The Landisville, Pennsylvania, native is officially an MLS player and has a contract with the league to prove it. Every week he trains with Sporting Kansas City and benefits from most of the professional accoutrements that entails.
But Heavner isn't officially on Kansas City's roster. In fact, he is a man without a team at all -- that is until a general manager somewhere decides he has a goalkeeper emergency and needs cover. Maybe there has been a glut of injuries to the keepers, perhaps a red card. Regardless, when a team's goalkeeping ranks get thinned, Heavner is the man who gets the call and he must embark for a new team at a moment's notice.
He may stay there a few days or a few months. Most weekends, the call never comes and all Heavner has is a few more training sessions to look forward to.
Welcome to life as an MLS "pool goalkeeper."
"I'm just trying to stay sharp every day and be ready for the call," Heavner said via telephone.
"When it comes, it comes, and you have to go that night or the next day. Of course I would prefer to be out every week with different teams, but you've just got to stay even-keeled with it mentally and go whenever your number is called."
Lino DiCuollo, MLS vice president for player relations, said the ability of teams to use emergency goalkeepers has been around for well over a decade and was the result of a period when MLS rosters were smaller (around 20 players) so teams would carry at most two goalkeepers.
Now, MLS rosters contain 28 players and teams are required to carry three goalkeepers. In addition, the league's "extreme hardship" roster rules allow teams to bring up a goalkeeper from its USL side or affiliate on a short-term basis. As a consequence, the need for a pool goalkeeper has lessened. Whereas prior years saw three to four pool goalkeepers signed, Heavner is the only such keeper in 2017.
"We're examining right now whether to do away with emergency goalkeepers or to figure out another way that teams can have access to a player like that because they're rarely used,'" DiCuollo said.
Yet they do come in handy. Heavner has already spent time this season with Minnesota United -- when John Alvbage and Patrick McClain were injured -- and FC Dallas. The program has also seen a few players shimmy their way out of goalkeeper limbo. Chris Konopka, currently with NASL side FC Edmonton, made his MLS debut with the New York Red Bulls in 2011 when he was a pool goalkeeper: usual starter Frank Rost was injured and reserve Bouna Condoul had yet to return from international duty.
"They came to me beginning of the week and said the game was mine," Konopka said.
"I had the whole week to prepare. I was thrilled. Even though I was the pool goalkeeper, they treated my like I was part of the team. They knew me from Day 1 as I had trained with them all season. I made my debut and that furthered my career for other clubs to pick me up."
The man who may have benefited most from being a pool goalkeeper is current Kansas City No. 1 Tim Melia. He had been an MLS keeper for five years when he was released by Chivas USA during the middle of the 2014 campaign. Since his contract was guaranteed, MLS had little choice but to keep him on as a pool keeper. Not that he was thrilled at the prospect.
"It was a very humbling experience when you're going in and you're just there as a number," Melia said.
"That's why it's a younger man's game for something like that. But it is hard to swallow, and if you go in there with any negativity, you'll get called out real quick. I just tried to go to every club and just say, 'Hey, I'm here. Use me as little or as much as you want. I'm here to help you guys. If you want me to go out there and take shots for an hour, that's what I'm here for.' I really just tried to grow individually as a human from it. It really puts you in your place very quickly."
Melia credits then-LA manager Bruce Arena for allowing him to continue training with the Galaxy after Chivas USA let him go, which enabled him to maintain his form.
"[Arena] didn't need me there. He had a ton of goalkeepers," Melia said. "But it just kind of kept me going. I just said: 'It's the middle of the summer, I need to do every single thing to make myself be in the best possible shape come January.' I absolutely worked my ass off."
Melia went on to have stints that season with Kansas City, FC Dallas and D.C. United, but it was his stop in Kansas City that paid off. Melia caught the eye of SKC manager Peter Vermes, was offered a contract with the team and then won the starting job the following season. He hasn't looked back since.
"I'm indebted and grateful to the league for having that [program] at that time," he said.
"Maybe right when it happened, you don't think that way. It's a knee-jerk reaction, and you're frustrated. But it saved my career at the end of the day. It got me in the shop window with Sporting, and it helped get a contract with Sporting. It allowed me the opportunity to compete with the guy who was the starter at the time, and it allowed me to solidify myself as a starter in the league."
Being a pool goalkeeper can make for an odd existence, however. The bouncing-around among teams can make it difficult to connect with teammates and coaches and feel a sense of belonging to a club. Heavner recalled how in Minnesota he left just as he was getting used to the place.
"I was making friends on the team, getting along with the staff very well and enjoying my time," he said.
"But then you move on and it's just a part of the position. Now I'm with Sporting, the guys have really taken me in and the staff has made me really feel like home. They've treated me like another player on the team."
Melia recalled how the reception from some teams varied, though he was in no position to make demands.
"Some of the teams it was like an open-door policy where, 'Hey you're part of the team now. You need to know everything leading up to a game,'" he said.
"Some teams you were just a number, who was there for training and they wanted to kind of keep you separate. From me, I just did whatever I was asked. Whatever it was, I just did it. Keep your head down, be quiet, be respectful of everything -- that was my approach to it."
There are awkward moments. Konopka recalled how a pool keeper based with the Colorado Rapids was called up to Chivas USA, whose next opponent happened to be, yep, the Rapids. Just this year, Heavner was called into Dallas, whose previous game had been against Kansas City, which made watching the game film a bit jarring.
"It was interesting flipping it around," he said.
"But at the same time I'm trying to learn about the team as much as I can and locking in because you never know if you're number is going to be called on the weekend. At first, it was like, 'Oh wow, this is weird.' Then you just turn around and take in the information and try to prepare."
Working with different goalkeeper coaches can be whirlwind as well. Every coach is bound to have their own particular spin on things; Heavner, Melia and Konopka all spoke of how working with different coaches was a benefit. Oftentimes, one coach would spot something that other coaches missed. But Konopka noted that some of the coaching he received directly contradicted the advice from others.
"I've now been playing professionally for 12 years, and you just have to take away what works best for you," he said.
"Some things work great, and some things don't work great, and then you just try to explain to them why you're doing something a certain way, rather than the way he's expecting you to do it."
Heavner is now the one soaking in the knowledge from around the league, and with the clock on pool goalkeepers likely running out, he's doing what he can to make the most of the experience. He certainly doesn't have to look far for inspiration.
"Melia is doing really well and it's good to see someone who was in the pool have that kind of success," Heavner said. "It's a light at the end of the tunnel."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.