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Apr 27, 2004

Walker next star in U.S. goalie pipeline

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's less than 15 minutes after the MetroStars have left the Giants Stadium turf after failing to get three points at home against a depleted Revolution lineup. The frustration over the 1-1 tie is visible on most faces in the home locker room, including the one of goalkeeper Jonny Walker.

But not for long.

It being Sunday evening, Walker is dressing quickly to catch a flight to Dallas to join the U.S. National Team who arrived earlier in the day to prepare for the match against Mexico on Wednesday night in the Cotton Bowl.

With the result against the Revs suddenly in the rearview mirror, Walker's face quickly lights up when he talks about getting his first taste of the heated U.S.-Mexico rivalry as the expected starting goalkeeper for the Americans.

"It's the Classico," said Walker on the same day that Barcelona defeated Real Madrid in El Classico in Spain. "It's the most important match. You can draw against any other opponent in the world, even some of the other top-five teams in the world, and I don't think it'd mean as much as this one. It is the game that everyone wants to play in."

Since the English Premier League still has a few more weeks left of play and the fact that it's a long flight across The Pond to Dallas for a mid-week game, U.S. National Team manager Bruce Arena called in Walker and Kevin Hartman (Los Angeles Galaxy) instead of summoning either Tim Howard, Brad Friedel or Kasey Keller.

Getting the chance to play in an important match against the greatest foe of the U.S. side not only will serve as a significant international experience for Walker, but it will also give him an opportunity to prove himself to Arena for upcoming World Cup qualifying matches.

"It seems like every performance -- week-to-week -- just gets bigger and bigger," he said. "You just have to respond. That's the bottom line. I know what the consequences are that come with a match like this, whether I play or not, so I'm just going to go out there and give everything I possibly can."

Thus far, Walker has received two caps with the National Team. His first one came in a 1-1 tie against Denmark in January, and his second came on March 13 against Haiti when he didn't allow a goal in his 45 minutes of action before giving way to Hartman in the 1-1 draw. So far he's been satisfied with how he's played in both of his appearances, as well as in training camp with the U.S.

"I think I've kept things rather simple," said Walker. "I've tried not to do anything too crazy. They keep calling me back, so maybe that is a good thing. It's a very difficult position to show everything you possibly can, especially in a match … where the goalkeeper isn't called on minute-by-minute. It's a slow process, but I know they're watching me. Like I said, I just hope I can perform, and they'll keep calling me back."

What Arena has noticed the most about Walker is his consistency that has helped to separate him from the other goalkeepers in Major League Soccer. What's also allowed him to earn a spot in the highly-competitive pool of U.S. goalkeepers is the vast experience he got from playing in the Chilean First Division and in Copa Libertadores over a five-year span from 1998-2003.

As the first-team keeper for Universidad Catolica for three seasons (2000-2002), he helped his side to first- and second place finishes, and earned "Best Goalkeeper" honors for his outstanding play in 2002. He was also successful when he moved on to Colo Colo for the 2003 campaign as the team finished second in the league and included a Copa Libertadores appearance in a 2-2 tie with Argentinean juggernaut Boca Juniors on April 3.

"He has more big-game experience having been in South America and some good competitions there," added Arena. "We have a number of MLS goalkeepers that are fairly comparable and Jonny's experience gives him an edge over most of them."

No matter how well Walker did in South America, what was vital to his inclusion in the pool was his move to the MetroStars in July of 2003 as Howard's replacement. It allowed him to not only be seen by Arena on a regular basis, but also be more readily available for National Team camps and friendly matches.

"It's something I probably wouldn't have done if I was still in South America," admitted Walker. "I might have had another shot at Libertadores -- a huge tournament that means so much to every player that is involved with it -- but the National Team is so much more. To be back home, playing in the league and getting involved (with the National Team) has truly been like a dream so far."

That's been the case for MetroStars goalkeeper coach Des McAleenan, as well, considering he saw the current EPL Goalkeeper of the Year leave the nest last summer, and was hardly expecting to find a suitable placement so quickly.

However, McAleenan has seen Walker do things in training that even Howard did not do over his six-year span with the MetroStars.

"Howard clearly has the edge," said McAleenan, "But I'll be bold to say that Jonny is as good, if not better, than Tim in many ways. His ability and experience that he got in his years away has allowed him to melt South American and American styles of goalkeeping into one strange, but very effective, combination. He's shown he's reliable and works hard in the same way on a day-to-day basis."

MetroStars defender Eddie Pope, who will also be a part of the U.S. side against Mexico on Wednesday, believes that the reliability and temperament that Walker has shown with the MetroStars is exactly what will help him in his first encounter with the Mexicans.

"He's played in rivalry games in South America with an equal level of hostility I am sure," said Pope, who will be looking to earn his 60th cap with the U.S. "He won't get nervous. He's been in those type of environments that were equally as hostile."

When World Cup qualifying starts for the U.S. on June 16 against Grenada, Walker could very easily find himself as one of the team's three goalkeepers along with Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller.

Since Howard has played in overlapping seasons in MLS and in the EPL with Manchester United that extends through the FA Cup on May 22, it's a possibility that he won't be called in at the start of qualifying.

"He's been going on for a pretty steady basis for 18 months," said Arena, "and it hasn't yet been determined if he's going to need a break during the summer or not."

Should the U.S. advance to the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying as expected, each of the six matches come during the EPL's season, including the potential August 18 road match against either Jamaica or Haiti.

Arena will most likely opt for at least one of the three Americans in England, but it's highly unlikely he'd call in all three and have two sit on the bench for these matches. That should help Walker immensely.

Obviously, that sort of competition should be intense. But since Walker has been in the mix, he hasn't experienced any friction between any of the keepers, and has been welcomed in to the group by each of his competitors/teammates.

"So far the professional camaraderie between myself and every single one of those guys has been a great experience," said the 29-year-old. "They're all very different characters with different personalities and different styles of play. To be able to go in and work with them, share some of the experiences with the National Team with them, and just communicate with them on an initial basis has been very good. There's been a very good rapport there. I'm very pleased with that.

"There've been no big ego trips that happen on a lot of National Team selections, so it really has been a very good experience so far. You also have to find out whether or not that experience will change once we get to World Cup qualifiers, and hopefully, the World Cup."

For Walker to think in such terms, he'll have to perform well leading up to mid-June.

And that starts against Mexico.

"You do not lose," said Walker on his mindset entering the match. "You go out there and you give everything you have. You're going to do everything you possibly can to win this game. There's so much pride on the line, and it's a bitter rivalry. I know that as much as that next guy. So to be involved in that is exciting.

"Emotionally, I'm starting to prepare myself for what's going to happen on Wednesday."

Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.