Many athletes are introduced to sports by their parents, launching a love for the game from an early age. For Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis, his passion for the beautiful game began with some nudging from a pair of uncles. Now in his sixth professional season, the Willis family is a soccer family.
Willis grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, a sports hotbed with a deep love for baseball, but also strong and somewhat surprising roots to hockey (over 4,000 youth players across 140 teams) and soccer. In some St. Louis communities, high school soccer draws bigger crowds than high school football.
“My Dad was a big sports guy, but he never played soccer,” Willis said. “He played baseball, basketball and football.”
After playing the “Big Three” sports growing up, John Willis was open-minded and encouraged his sons to play a wide range of sports. But soccer was pushed by uncles Mark (the brother of Joe’s mom, Ann) and Pat (Ann’s brother-in-law).
“I have two uncles who are big time soccer guys so they strongly encouraged it, and my brother and I just really took to it,” Willis recalls. “We loved it since we were old enough to walk and kept growing from there. We both played a lot of other sports growing up. I played basketball, baseball, hockey and volleyball, but soccer was just always the one I enjoyed most.”
Sold on the sport by the uncles, Willis followed older brother John onto the soccer fields.
“My older brother is two years older and he played before I did, so growing up I always tried to do everything he did.”
Willis originally played for Busch Soccer Club before moving to Scott Gallagher Soccer Club before the two clubs merged. Scott Gallagher is St. Louis’ most renowned youth soccer club and counts many professional players among its alumni, including Dynamo forward Will Bruin, former captain Brad Davis, former assistant coach Steve Ralston as well as Jack Jewsbury, Taylor Twellman, Chris Klein, Tim Ream and several others.
“I spent a majority of my time at Scott Gallagher, that’s really where I grew as a player.”
Willis set career highs in 2016 with 26 appearances, 24 starts, five wins and five shutouts, and was named the team's Defensive Player of the Year. The run of games has given the family more to chew on in its group text, in which soccer is among the main discussion topics.
“[Uncles Mark and Pat] were a big influence on my brother and I growing up. We still keep in touch all the time. I actually just saw both of them when we were in Kansas City [for a 3-3 draw on September 9]. We still talk all the time. One of them is a huge Manchester United fan and imparted that on my brother and I. We are always keeping up with Manchester United and what’s going on in the Premier League. He has two sons who are similar age to my brother and I, so we are always talking soccer and texting back and forth.”
Willis is now age 28, allowing John over two decades to learn the game as his son played at University of Denver before launching a pro career. John Willis has turned into a savvy, knowledgeable soccer fan.
“He never really played it but both his sons loved it so he got into it,” Willis says. “I still remember being a kid and at youth games he’d be on one end, sitting by himself. He’d keep track of time and yell out when there were five minutes left in the half and five minutes left in the game. It’s pretty crazy how he has become such a fan. He is a technical fan, he knows what he’s talking about. He’ll send me texts and analyze our game and he makes good points. It’s pretty neat that because my brother and I have such an interest in soccer that he’s taken on such an interest.”
Willis’ parents have been constant supporters and enjoy making trips on gamedays, even when Joe isn’t slated to start. John is a supportive dad after games, leaving any critiques to the Dynamo coaching staff and perhaps, on occasion, the uncles.
“He’s very encouraging to me,” Willis says. “He doesn’t critique me. I know I need critique sometimes but he is never the one to give it to me. If I think I had a bad game he is there to pick me up and try and keep me positive. Even sometimes when I need negative feedback it’s still positive from him.”