This is Part Six in a series of articles on the players that make up the 2010 Los Angeles Galaxy.
In the game of soccer, players will get injured. Sometimes the knocks will tend to last a few days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months, and in a number of cases the injuries are severe and cruel enough to cut a promising career short.
Los Angeles Galaxy backup goalkeeper Josh Saunders is an example of how those waiting in the wings will need to be ready to step up to the challenge. Once upon a time, they rode the pines and warmed the sideline benches. Nowadays, they are the target.
Saunders knows this all too well, having delivered a brave performance in place of starter Donovan Ricketts at the 2009 MLS Cup.
But one would be misled to think that Saunders's experience hasn't led him to places never before thought of. After all, he plays for Puerto Rico, a relative soccer minnow situated in the middle of Caribbean.
And while Puerto Rico faces a state of uncertainty regarding its existence, Saunders has brought stability and depth to the Galaxy at the goalkeeper position.
Saunders was born on March 2, 1981, in Grants Pass, Oregon. Named as an All-American City in 1986, Grants Pass is located in the southwestern portion of the state, and is also the county seat of Josephine County.
One of Grants Pass's mottos is "Where the Rogue River Runs." Salmon runs and whitewater rafting generate a good deal of the revenue for this Rogue River, which flows from Crater Lake National Park to the Pacific Ocean.
Another popular event in Grants Pass is Boatnik. Held on Memorial day weekend, this event features boat shows and races, the Boatnik parade, an F-15 flyover, and its signature event is the Boatnik hydroplane race.
Saunders arrived on the soccer scene as a player moving through the college ranks.
Two unsatisfying years at Cal State Fullerton gave way to a transfer up north to UC Berkeley. As a goalkeeper with the Cal Golden Bears, Saunders earned All Pac-10 first honors in his two years donning the Blue and Gold.
In 2001, he made 88 saves to go with a 1.13 goals against average and a 10-8-1 record. In 2002, Saunders reprised his heroics, and became the first goalkeeper to be named the Pac-10 Player of the Year. During his senior year, Saunders amassed 67 saves en route to an 0.85 GAA, and a 14-6-2 record with 10 shutouts.
Saunders was drafted by the San Jose Earthquakes in the 2003 MLS SuperDraft, and won an MLS Cup in his rookie season as a member of the 2003 team.
But in an ironic twist, he never got to play a single MLS match in a Quakes uniform. Instead, he was loaned to the Portland Timbers, who (at the time) were competing in the USL A-League/First Division.
During the 2003 campaign, Saunders tallied a 0.90 goals against average, and earned six clean sheet while allowing just 15 goals for a 10-4-2 record. The following season proved to be a little bit more fruitful for the Timbers, who finished first in the USL A-League Western Conference, and progressed to the quarterfinals. Saunders would compile a 16-5-2 record, with a 1.11 GAA, and another six clean sheets.
In 2005, Saunders was a starter for all of Portland's 28 contests. He tallied a 10-9-9 record with six clean sheets, and a 1.50 GAA. However, just like in 2004, it was the Seattle Sounders (now Seattle Sounders FC) who eliminated the Timbers from the playoffs.
The 2006 season would go down as Saunders's last with Portland. Simply put, it was a campaign to forget, as he managed a paltry 5-11-5 record, a 1.49 GAA, and just four shutouts. In all, Saunders made 68 appearances for the Portland Timbers, before signing with the Puerto Rico Islanders in 2007.
In his only season with the Islanders, Saunders appeared in 22 regular season matches in helping Puerto Rico achieve a 10-8-10 record, and an appearance in the USL First Division semifinals.
Making 71 saves, allowing only 26 goals, and shutting out the Montreal Impact at the Juan Ramón Loubriel Stadium, Saunders was back in form and set the stage for his breakout year in 2008.
With Miami FC, Saunders earned a 1.22 GAA to go with 13 clean sheets, 33 goals allowed, and 95 saves. This drew the interest of the Los Angeles Galaxy, who were in a state of flux with three managers in one season. Interestingly enough, Saunders had a previous stint with the Galaxy, competing in the MLS Reserve Division, and was part of the 2005 team that won the US Open Cup-MLS Cup double.
September 2008 saw Saunders get his chance after being acquired by the Galaxy on a loan. He only played three matches, compiling a humble 1-2 record and a 2.00 GAA.
But it was a sign on things to come.
The 2009 season was the breakthrough year for Josh Saunders in Major League Soccer.
He started four of the six regular season games for the Galaxy, earning a 1.08 goals against average. In that campaign, Saunders faced the likes of Costa Rica's CS Herediano, AC Milan and FC Barcelona, in which he played the full 90 minutes, and delivered a valiant performance in spite of the Galaxy losing 2-1.
But Saunders's greatest performance had to be the last match of the season, the 2009 MLS Cup at Qwest Field. In the 66th minute, an injury to Ricketts forced Saunders to fill in. He made one save in regulation, and two more in the penalty shootout against Real Salt Lake.
Fast forward to May 15, 2010. After Ricketts suffered a hyper-extended right elbow during practice, it was up to Saunders to fill in against Toronto FC. And while the Galaxy could not send their fans home happy with a win, he did give them a reason to at least applaud. Saunders made only one save en route to his first shutout of the 2010 campaign.
A talented athlete at any position on the field needs to be ready to step up to the challenge, neutralize the opposition, and deliver in the clutch when he is summoned to do so.
Don't look now, but word on the streets of Bayamon, San Juan, Caguas and elsewhere in Puerto Rico is that El Huracán Azul could use Saunders' services real soon.