One of David Ochoa’s first training sessions with DC United saw him come face to face with a legend. DCU manager Wayne Rooney decided to take part in a shooting practice and quickly scored on the newly acquired goalkeeper.
« So [Rooney] started talking snapping, » Ochoa told ESPN with a smile. “It was hilarious. He said to me: ‘How can I still mark on you with this belly that I have?’ We all laughed and it’s crazy. I could officially say I saved Wayne Rooney’s shot, but I can also say I was scored by Wayne Rooney. I don’t mind saying that. »
Ochoa ending up playing for the Blacks and Reds, instead of Real Salt Lake’s Claret and Cobalt, is a scenario that was borderline unthinkable after last season. Ochoa’s exploits in the MLS Cup playoffs, in which his stellar play and swagger carried RSL to the Western Conference Finals, made him the toast of the Wasatch Front. It didn’t matter that his attitude might have offended people the wrong way. He was not only considered RSL’s latest academy achievement, but a new villain in a league that often calls for personalities.
The 2022 campaign was seen as a season in which Ochoa would continue his rise up the MLS goalkeeper rankings. Instead, the relationship between the player and the club went into a downward spiral, so much so that before being shipped off to DCU, Ochoa was invited to train with the Real Monarchs, the team of reserve of RSL who participates in MLS Next Pro.
« They didn’t want me around the first-team guys, » Ochoa said. « So that [was] Very frustrating.”
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So how did Ochoa and RSL get to this point, where he’s essentially become persona non grata?
Any analysis of Ochoa’s last seven months with RSL must begin with the fact that the two sides were negotiating a new contract. According to data from the MLS Players Association, Ochoa’s guaranteed compensation of $103,000 for 2022 ranks him 54th among MLS goaltenders. RSL offered him improved terms but sources confirm he was outside the league’s top 10 goalkeepers. (The Seattle Sounders’ Stefan Frei has the 10th-highest guaranteed pay among guards at $500,000.)
“If you had asked me six months ago, I would have loved the idea of staying in Salt Lake and staying at the club where I spent so many years,” Ochoa said. « But [RSL] started playing hardball with me and I didn’t like it. So I would say that maybe five months ago I was waiting for a new change, ready for a fresh start. I told my agent to start looking.”
With Ochoa’s current deal expiring at the end of the 2022 season, there was an urgent need to strike a deal or transfer him. Ochoa admitted that her family situation was also on her mind. He is the eldest of seven children and was keen to help his family more, especially his father, who spends 10 hours a day working in construction.
« I was just starting to think, maybe he doesn’t have to work so much and maybe you can really enjoy life and not work that tough, tough schedule that a lot of people work, » he said. said Ochoa. « But I was just trying to help them out a bit. »
In football, it is not uncommon for a club to bench a player in an attempt to force him to sign a new contract. That doesn’t seem to be the case in this case. Ochoa was, after all, the pre-season starter. But in RSL’s last pre-season game against the Portland Timbers, he suffered a quad injury and then suffered a finger injury. The two evils combined to keep him out for over eight weeks. In Ochoa’s absence, RSL looked a much more competitive side than expected heading into the season, going 3-2-3 in their first eight games under goalkeeper Zac MacMath efficient.
When Ochoa was healthy enough to return, he expected to be immediately placed in the starting lineup. Manager Pablo Mastroeni opted to stay with MacMath. It is at this stage that there is a bit of he-said/he-said that continues. Ochoa said he and Mastroeni « didn’t talk much, » while Mastroeni maintains there was constant dialogue, leading him to joke, « If you’re not listening, I guess nobody’s talking. »
So, after years of steadily rising through the ranks, Ochoa was faced with his first professional adversity. He felt he was doing what was asked of him. Mastroeni’s view was that Ochoa did not take the news well.
“[Ochoa] was late a few times, and only the training habits weren’t up to par,” Mastroeni told ESPN. “At that time we had quite a few conversations about being a professional footballer. It’s not always about getting started. It’s about understanding how to behave within a club. We have club rules, we have team rules, locker rules, and you have to play by them no matter who you are or what you did last year.
“Everyone wants to move on. And if you cling to the past, there will always be a bit of you that will resist somewhere.”
Ochoa said he felt he was one of the top five goalkeepers in MLS in 2021 and his performances should have given him the benefit of the doubt. He felt that any break with his teammates was due to his personality.
“I feel like myself, able to play these types of [playoff] games and being at this level, I felt like it almost gave me a boost of confidence,” he said. “My mentality changed a bit and maybe it didn’t suit a lot of people that this 21-year-old kid was almost leading 30-somethings and men who were 10, maybe even 15 years older than me, so I think that was it.”
Why this was a problem in 2022, and not 2021, remains unexplained. As Ochoa peels back the layers of his final months with RSL, however, he admits to frayed relationships with his teammates. In early May, he recalled a locker room confrontation with a teammate – who sources identified as veteran midfielder Justin Meram – and shortly after the team’s board of directors visited Mastroeni and said something needed to be done in terms of treatment. with Ochoa. Mastroeni added that there were several « blowouts » between Ochoa and his teammates.
At first, Ochoa was sent to train and play with the Monarchs, and he appeared in two MLS Next Pro matches. But it’s been mentally tough for him to come back after leading the Monarchs to the 2019 USL Championship title and his stint as a starter in 2021. He says he found the level « easy, » even though the team was struggling. Eventually, Ochoa returned home to Oxnard, California to clear his head, but upon his return it was judged that he had not done enough to improve his status to deserve inclusion in the first team training.
“There is a plan we had in place as a club for it to come to this,” Mastroeni said of the possibility of Ochoa returning at some point. “And he refused to go through with the plan, which was to train with the monarchs for a long time to show that his behavior had changed, that he wanted to be the change. And he never followed it. And so it was always available. And again it was done with everyone at the club, including himself and his agent.”
Mastroeni recalled that in the MLS of old, such lessons would have largely been imparted – and learned – when a player was in college, a time when the responsibilities of playing both on the pitch and in the classroom required some discipline. But while the college game still has its place, those days are largely over, both for better and for worse. Climbing the ranks in a team’s academy is now the well-worn path to a professional contract. Instead, Mastroeni must have regretted that « I don’t think this situation is anyone’s fault. It’s just life and how it works.”
Maybe, but both sides were damaged by the way things turned out. Ochoa is a player wanted by two national teams – he ultimately opted for Mexico over the United States – and RSL lost him for just $75,000 in allowance. There’s a chance more money will be directed to RSL, but only if Ochoa ends up signing a new contract with DC United. More can be had if DCU trades Ochoa out of the league, but the odds of that seem long. With the likes of Barcelona and Manchester United having followed him in the past, it seems there’s still a market for Ochoa.
Time will reveal how badly Ochoa’s own reputation has been tarnished, but that time can also be spent making things right. To that end, he feels the change of scenery has done him good. There’s a familiar face in goalkeeping coach Diego Restrepo, whom Ochoa had known since he was in residence with the U17 U.S. national team. He is also delighted to play for Rooney.
Ochoa’s only start for the Blacks and Reds so far ended in a 1-0 loss to league leaders LAFC, and although an untimely stumble played a part in the goal he conceded, he also made a few clean saves to keep a 10-man DCU side in the game. As the team tries to play more at the back under Rooney, Ochoa is also eager to test his distribution skills.
However, any talk about what’s next can only drift to whether he’ll be heading overseas when his contract expires. He wisely keeps his options open, and having felt the sting of sitting on the bench, he wants to make sure he lands in a good spot.
“There are teams that are interested in Europe at the moment. But at the same time, the fact that I can stay in this league and still have games, that also catches my attention,” Ochoa said. « I don’t want to be out there and not play and stuff. So we’ll see at the end of the season what my options are and then I’ll start there. »
For now, Ochoa can still do a lot to salvage something from the season. There are lessons to apply, games to play and bragging rights to earn from your manager.