Ever since Bill Hamid was a teenage phenom, he’s been on the shortlist to become the next great American goalkeeper. Now might be his moment.
If you’ve watched D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid play football, you’ve invariably witnessed a save that continues to confound you. There are the ones where he’ll erase the distance between himself and the far post with such velocity that even the most curling, dipping, dagger of a shot gets slapped away with ease. Or, more bafflingly, there are the saves where he’ll charge off his line and transform the various parts of his body—arms, legs, shins, chest, head, knees, feet—into a sliding Swiss army knife of last-ditch salvation. “He made himself big,” the announcer will say, an explanation that fails to account for the seemingly magnetic connection between Hamid’s six-foot-three frame and the ball, denied its long-awaited reunion with the net.
My favorite Hamid save is one like this, made against Thierry Henry in 2014 during the Frenchman’s stint with the New York Red Bulls. Henry, having crept past the United defense, took a shot from just beyond the six-yard box, a rising, right-footed blast that somehow Hamid managed to locate and swat disdainfully away even though the distance between his hand and Henry’s foot was minuscule and it was not possible for him to have had time to see the ball, assess its flight path, and know that he would need to fully extend his left arm before the shot passed him by—which is exactly what he did as he slid to the ground in a millisecond of time that did not exist.
Afterward, as he popped up and dismembered his defenders with a verbal barrage that I imagine made them question not just that one defensive lapse but also their decision to pursue the sport professionally, all that Henry could do was stand befuddled—ever so Gallicly—hands on his hips, pondering the broken laws of physics.
You’d call it luck if you didn’t see Hamid do it so often.
If Bill Hamid is this good at stopping the ball from going into the net, you might be wondering why—eight years after signing his first professional contract with his hometown club, D.C. United—he is still playing in Major League Soccer. It turns out that he thinks about this, too. “I never thought I’d still be in MLS by the time I was 26,” he tells me. “Not at all. I thought I’d be long gone.”
He’s not alone in thinking this. When Hamid joined United as a teenager, many expected his stay in MLS to be brief. A raw and ruthlessly effective shot stopper, he wowed scouts and coaches alike. “He covered the goal like nobody I’d ever seen before,” recalls his former United goalkeeping coach Pat Onstad. “The funny thing was, at that stage he wasn’t even fit.”
With that talent came a cauldron of pressure to earn minutes with the national team and to sign with a European club. News headlines amplified the expectation that Hamid would soon cross the Atlantic on his way to becoming the next great American goalkeeper. “Bill Hamid Ready to Take Over the Reins,” said SBNation in 2011. “Hamid: U.S. Soccer’s Next Great Goalkeeper,” added the Sporting News that same year.
Since then, Hamid has grown into one of the best players in MLS (he was named the league’s top goalkeeper in 2014) and is perpetually on the U.S. national team bubble. But he has not yet reached the heights that so many predicted he would when his career began.
If Hamid is bothered by this, it doesn’t show. We’re having lunch on the patio of Chaplin’s, a restaurant in the hipster-fied Shaw neighborhood of Washington. It’s a flawless April day, a few weeks after the cherry blossoms ushered spring into the nation’s capital, and Hamid is basking in the afterglow of back-to-back United victories, sporting a white T-shirt and designer sunglasses.
We’ve just come from a photo shoot where Hamid gamely donned a makeshift trash-bag skirt to keep his shorts clean while people squirted his bare chest and head with multicolor facepaint. Given his intense on-the-field persona (“He’s an intimidating guy,” confirms United defender Steve Birnbaum when I ask about Hamid’s mid-game tongue lashings), one might think he wouldn’t be up for such shenanigans, but off-the-field Hamid’s eyes project a playful confidence.
On the way to the restaurant, we passed the cryotherapy center where he goes for extra recovery after matches. Hamid ducked inside and greeted every staff member by name. Throughout the day, I’ll watch him commit more random acts of kindness: offering to help clean up after the photo shoot; holding open a door for a man on crutches; picking up a tray dropped by a waiter. Beneath the swagger, there’s a large reservoir of empathy in Hamid, a genuine concern for the people close to him.
At times, it will feel as if he’s interviewing me. He’ll ask about my writing process, what I like to cook, and—memorably—if I’ve ever used the dating app Tinder. I confess that it can be hard to meet people. “Is it?” he replies. A knowing smile confirms the obvious: He has never struggled to meet women. “I learned from Chris Pontius [a former United teammate],” he jokes.
But why is Hamid still in Washington when he possesses the physical tools to be playing just about anywhere? The answer is complex, but it has its roots in understanding how he dealt with the pressures he faced as a young footballer. Back then, he viewed his career as a series of stepping stones—the national team, a small European club, and then a larger one—on the inevitable path to superstardom.
“I think one of Bill’s problems is that he wanted it all too quickly,” says Kevin Payne, the former president of D.C. United, who signed Hamid to his first contract in 2009. “[Young American players] get a lot of people encouraging them that this is a brief waystation to Europe. It does not serve them well.”
Early on, Hamid struggled to develop the training habits that would maximize his athletic ability, and his mood and focus would fluctuate with each performance. “I remember in the early years he was very volatile,” says longtime United coach Ben Olsen. “It was a lot for him to handle the professional game and the pressures on the field, and sometimes all the distractions off the field.”
It was around this time that Onstad, the goalkeeper coach, refused to let Hamid practice after he arrived late to a training session. “He didn’t understand it and didn’t quite agree with it, so we had a good heated debate,” says Onstad. “The biggest battle for Bill was for him just to be able to realize that this is my profession and I need to treat it as such.”
When I ask Hamid about the incident, he denies that he was late and believes that Onstad kicked him out to keep his ego in check. “I think he did it before something happened where I showed that my head was too big.”
Hamid’s raw talent and head-scratching saves earned him national team caps, overseas attention, and accolades. He made his U.S. debut in 2012, keeping a clean sheet against Venezuela. In 2011 and again in 2013, he went on trial with West Bromwich Albion. In 2014, he was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. But untimely injuries, paired with inconsistency in goal, prevented him from reaching the heights that so many, himself included, had predicted.
“I was still immature in the league.” Hamid says. “I just got out there and made saves. Other than that, it just happened.”
In 2015—despite some European interest—Hamid opted to remain with United, signing a new contract that made him one of the highest-paid goalkeepers in MLS. He explains the decision in an unexpected way, referencing not what he was able to achieve for himself but instead what he was able to provide for his family.
Then came the knee injuries that required three operations to address, the last of which removed 15 percent of the meniscus from his right knee. In the process, Hamid missed consecutive national team camps and fell even further down the depth chart. “Some guys throughout their careers, the timing is never right when it comes to international soccer,” says Olsen. “Bill’s been one of those where I think the timing of some of his setbacks has not been good.”
It has all combined—the injuries, the awards, the national team caps, the spectacular saves, and the mental errors—to produce a very different Bill Hamid than the one who came into the league at 18 and felt he would be staying only for a few seasons. Now, at 26, he believes he’s just beginning to figure out who he is as both a player and a person.
“I’m starting to understand more and more what life is really about,” he says. “As a kid, you’re going a million miles per hour, and you don’t know that certain things are going to happen to you that are going to set your path on a different course than what you expected.”
He’s been reading Relentless by Tim Grover—Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant’s former trainer—a book he credits for teaching him to tune out anything beyond the immediate task at hand. “You can’t corrupt your mind with ‘if not,’” he explains. “I feel like when you start thinking about that it’s going to be detrimental to your success. Like, ugh, man, if I don’t play well this weekend I’m not going to make it. I won’t get called up. You can’t put that shit in your mind because then you’ve actually made it something.”
The book appeared mysteriously one day at his locker. He asked his family, his coaches, his teammates, and his friends if they were responsible for sending it, but no one has admitted to being the source. “Somebody felt the need to order this book, package it, and FedEx it to me, to my locker,” he says, sensing fate’s hand in the delivery.
The new mind-set has produced a calmer, more balanced Hamid. He’s still intense on the pitch and maintains major ambitions to play abroad and with the national team, but he has no regrets about the choices he made early in his career. “You have to ride the wave,” he explains. “And once you ride it and you see that everything is going to be fine, you continue on with the goal of moving up to the next level in your career.”
That philosophy was not one that Jürgen Klinsmann agreed with. During his five years with the national team, before his dismissal in late 2016, Klinsmann preached that players should never allow circumstances to dictate their progress, and constantly implored them to leave their comfort zones and earn time at bigger and better clubs. In 2016, he publicly criticized Hamid and other players for failing to develop as he’d hoped. “What happened to the Bill Hamids, the Sean Johnsons, the Breck [sic] Sheas, the Mix Diskeruds?” he told the Wall Street Journal. “You go through it and we get back to our old thing where we say, ‘Hey guys, talent is only half of it.’”
Hamid denies that Klinsmann’s criticism bothered him, but he believes his decision to stay with United in 2015 hurt his standing with the German. And he challenges Klinsmann’s notion that growth can only happen in uncomfortable environments. “If you’re thinking about going to Europe, then you’re probably not going to go to Europe. You have to think about making yourself better, and that’s what I wake up and do every single morning.”
He then answers the question that Klinsmann posed—What happened to Bill Hamid?—his voice rising. “He provided for his family. His mother was able to eat, have a roof over her head, because of what happened to Bill Hamid. His little sister was able to enroll into a private school and get a good education because of what happened to Bill Hamid. Whatever happened to Bill Hamid,” he concludes, “I think he’s doing all right for himself.”
A few hours before our lunch, I watched as a photographer worked Hamid through a variety of poses. He was seated, shirtless, and the photographer was shading pieces of Hamid’s face in bands of bright light, hiding the rest in shadow. Hamid was focused and calm, warming to the room, the lights, and the shutter flash, and he started telling stories about the movies he’s seen, the music he likes, and the time he saw Jürgen Klinsmann land a helicopter at a U.S. national team practice looking like a beach-blond Tom Cruise.
It’s only when the new Kendrick Lamar song “Humble” comes on, though, that Hamid ignited. He moved to the staccato beat, his eyes sharpening, his muscles growing tense, each movement brash and bold. In succession, he wagged his tongue, flexed his well-tattooed biceps, and stared defiantly into the lens.
Hamid’s transformation reminded me of a moment in the 2012 MLS Cup playoffs when D.C. United faced off against the New York Red Bulls. In the second leg, Hamid, then only 22, was sent off for taking down Red Bulls attacker Kenny Cooper. He stormed off the pitch and headed for the locker room. There, cameras rolling, he delivered a primal roar. “C’mon!” he shouted, slapping his bare chest, “you can’t hold us back!” In the locker room, he doubled down. “They can’t hold us back. That is it. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Five years later, it’s hard to imagine Hamid uttering those words. He recognizes now that staying balanced, calm, and controlled helps him more than burning hot. “Everybody knows how fucking intense I get,” he says. “But, at the same time, you have to have a sense of calm because if you don’t you’re going to lose your fucking head.”
This Bill Hamid—version 2.0—has found comfort in a newfound appreciation for routine. His weekly schedule now includes healthy eating, massage, and cryotherapy on top of regular training sessions with United. “Most of the challenge with Bill is holding him back, making sure he’s not doing three workouts a day, or doing some power yoga thing at midnight,” says Olsen. “I think he’s understanding now that he has to kind of train with his mind a little bit more than his body.”
Even with his budding Zen-like state of mind, Hamid still harbors big ambitions. He comes closest to admitting his goals when talking about his personal life. Recently, he ended a relationship that he felt distracted him from his career. “It started to stress me out a lot,” he says. “Until I feel like I’ve accomplished what I want to accomplish, I should just stay single and enjoy it.”
If Hamid is going to make the jump to the next level, the moment is fast approaching. For the first time in years he’s healthy, and he’s playing some of the best football of his life. At 26, he’s still an adolescent in goalkeeper years. He’s also in the final year of his United contract, opening up the potential for a free transfer to Europe when the current MLS season ends. “I would certainly argue that he’s the best goalkeeper in the MLS,” says Olsen. “On the international stage, I think that’s something we’ll find out when and if he gets that chance.”
That chance could be coming this summer. Hamid was named to the U.S. Gold Cup squad, returning to the national team after the long, injury-laden layoff. Now under new manager Bruce Arena, he’ll compete for playing time with the team’s established keepers, hoping to make an impression ahead of the 2018 World Cup. [Editor’s note: Since this piece was first published in issue 11, Hamid started one match for the U.S. during the Gold Cup, shutting out Nicaragua in a 2-0 victory.]
“It feels really good, seeing my name on that list,” he confesses, and makes his case for playing time with characteristic confidence. “I don’t believe that there’s any goalkeeper better than me in this league, in this country, period. I don’t believe it.”
With Arena at the helm, playing in Europe is also no longer a prerequisite to earning national team minutes. “Bruce respects our league in a big way,” says Olsen, offering a not-too-subtle swipe at Arena’s predecessor. “That’s not as big a factor I find with players now, whether you’re staying or going.”
It will take a compelling offer to pry him away from Washington. He recently purchased a condominium in the city, and he’s fiercely proud of having helped his family, immigrants from Sierra Leone, establish roots in the area.
“We’re always going to want him here and be a part of this club,” says Olsen, who over eight seasons has watched Hamid mature from a teenage phenom into the face of D.C. United. He says he will support any choice Hamid makes about his future. “You can’t be afraid of the unknown and what’s out there, and pushing yourself to go to Europe, which has always been a kind of a dream of his.”
After a day spent with Bill Hamid, it’s clear that he—like all of us—holds contradictory ideas. He remains as ambitious as he was when he joined the league, but he’s learned that he’s a better player and person when he’s focused on the present. He’s resolved this tension with a simple solution: Live in the moment, and trust that in doing so he’ll achieve his goals. “On the field, am I ready? One hundred percent. I could go over [to Europe] and ball out if I wanted to. But I can’t think about what’s next. The agent does all that bull crap. I just step into the goal and lace my gloves up. That’s what I do. I make saves, man.”