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Mar 13, 2005

Oshoniyi back from the brink

One of the first things you notice about Kansas City Wizards goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi is his uncanny resemblance to ESPN anchorman Stuart Scott. And while you won't find Oshoniyi walking around yelling "Boo-ya!" very often, such were his performances during the 2004 season that his teammates could be forgiven for yelling "Bo-ya!"

While Kansas City's 3-2 defeat to D.C. United in last year's MLS Cup left a sour taste in Oshoniyi's mouth, the fact remains that the veteran netminder keyed his side's run to the final. Deputizing for the injured Tony Meola, the six year MLS veteran posted a record of 5-2-2, a GAA of 0.89, as well as 5 shutouts. Oshoniyi raised his game further in the playoffs, posting two more clean sheets.

Now that Meola is no longer with the Western Conference champs, Oshoniyi looks set to take up permanent residence in the Kansas City goal. Thursday night's first leg match against Saprissa in the CONCACAF Champions Cup saw some of the Wizards shaking off some considerable rust. But Oshoniyi appeared to be in midseason form, producing several fine saves in a 0-0 tie with the Costa Rican side.

That the Southern Connecticut State grad now finds himself in such a position borders on the otherworldly. Simply put, Oshoniyi's career was an Achilles tendon strain away from being The Greatest Story Never Told. But his success hasn't come as a surprise to Wizards' head coach Bob Gansler. "I always knew [Oshoniyi] was a gifted athlete," says Gansler. "What he's added to his game over time is composure. It doesn't come for everybody but it came for him and he's parleyed it into becoming an extremely talented goalkeeper."

It's a story that begins, in MLS terms, back in the League's inaugural year, one that was utterly forgettable for the Poughkeepsie, New York native. Oshoniyi got lit up like the Las Vegas strip, sporting a hefty GAA of 2.54. In addition to his on-field struggles, the long rumored acquisition of one Brad Friedel hung over him like an anvil. "I think I believed in myself a little bit too much at first and it took some bad goals to bring me back down to Earth," says Oshoniyi. "At that point, I lost my confidence and when that happens in the goal, you're done."

At the end of that season, the Crew informed Oshoniyi that they were done with him, releasing the one-time collegiate Goalkeeper of the Year. Oshoniyi figured that a year in the A-League might do his game some good, but what followed was a playing odyssey that sent him to three different A-League cities in three years, each with the same ending. At the conclusion of each season, Oshoniyi would peddle his services to every MLS team, only to find himself about as desirable as Kirstie Alley. "Some days, I never thought I'd get another shot," says Oshoniyi. "But I just felt like I had to fight and fight and fight until I got another chance."

That chance finally came Oshoniyi's way prior to the 2000 season when Gansler, with some encouragement from fellow SCSU alum Brian Bliss, threw the A-League veteran a lifeline that he seized with both hands. "We knew we had a good team, so we wanted a mature, older goalkeeper," adds Tim Mulqueen, the Wizards' keeper coach until the end of last season. "We knew how good Bo was, but we felt no one had ever given him a fair chance. We loved his personality, thought he was a great locker room guy, and he trained well with [Meola]. We saw nothing but an upside."

But any joy Oshoniyi felt at returning to the top level of U.S. soccer was tempered by the fact he was now stuck behind Meola, one of the more enduring figures in the sport. Winning a championship in 2000 helped soften the blow, but Oshoniyi still only saw spot duty over the next four seasons. The 2003 season saw him log a grand total of eight minutes between the sticks.

With the goalkeeping pecking order so firmly established, complacency would seem as inevitable as a dive from Carols Ruiz. Oshoniyi credits his mental approach as well as Mulqueen with helping him stay sharp. "I just prepared every week like I was going to play," says Oshoniyi. "It's difficult, but you just have to be strong minded. But Tim trained me like I was the starter every day, so when I did get the chance to play, it wasn't that big a deal."

It was an attitude that was noticed by Gansler, who had no concerns when Meola went down last August. Gansler adds "Everyday in practice was like a game for him, and there was more than one occasion when after practice we would say 'The best player in goal today was Bo.'"

Oshoniyi now finds himself in the perfect position with the perfect team, adding that he doesn't envy the likes of Joe Cannon, who gets pounded with shots every week. "This is the kind of organization that a goalkeeper wants to be with. Coach Gansler is defensive oriented. As a goalkeeper you can respect that and know that your team isn't going to just go out and get in a track meet and leave you stranded back there."

With Oshoniyi's future now secure, it looks like his teammates can yell "Bo-ya!" for years to come.

Jeff Carlisle is a freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com