RGVFC goalkeeper Ben Willis is using his past experience to help push him through his first professional season.
In a USL Championship soccer match, a maximum of 14 players will see time on the pitch. But, the players that find themselves outside that 14 can also make a big impact on the club. RGVFC goalkeeper Ben Willis has only made one league appearance this season, the club’s opener against Tacoma Defiance. Since then, he’s been relegated to working hard in training with little expectation of match action. For Willis, that is not something new and is a big part of his soccer journey.
Let’s go back to the beginning of his story. Ben Willis grew up in Federal Way, Washington. The coastal city in the Pacific Northwest has a history with producing talented soccer players. “Federal Way is in such a good area for soccer development and helping players get to the next level. Federal Way has a fantastic club in the city itself in Federal Way FC, which was the first Select club I played for,” Willis explained. “And also is close enough where players can play for Washington Premier (my second select club), Crossfire (Kelyn Rowe’s club) and then there is also the Seattle Sounders Academy (the third club I played for).”
“Just having guys like Kelyn Rowe and Lamar Neagle to look up to as a young player, it’s fantastic and gives youth players something to strive for and players to look up to.”
He decided to stay in Washington for his college career, attending Gonzaga University. He said, “When I was visiting schools, Gonzaga felt the most like home. They had an unreal campus, everyone was so nice. And honestly, the biggest thing for me in choosing a school was my goalkeeper coach there, Vito Higgins. He was a Gonzaga alumnus, went pro for LA Galaxy and when I visited, he convinced me because of his coaching style, and how awesome he was. Vito was definitely the biggest reason why I went to Gonzaga and why I’m playing pro now.”
While Willis had a great relationship with Coach Higgins, he did not have a storybook career as a Bulldog. After starting six games as freshmen, he was redshirted for his sophomore year. He said the biggest reason was the performance of starter Chris Lowrimore, but the other cause was a bit more existential, as Willis was struggling with his passion for the beautiful game. “I didn’t touch a soccer ball the summer right before our fall season. So coming off of a summer where I didn’t touch a soccer ball and was honestly considering quitting, I was rusty and not the best. But that summer and redshirt year was the best things to happen to me. It brought back my love of the game and gave me fuel to fight for the starting spot and brought back my childhood dream of going pro,” he said.
Now, he’s working his way through another season similar to his redshirt year. Willis shared, “It’s always difficult being the number two or number three sometimes. So that year where I didn’t see any action helped a lot. Understanding my role as the backup; helping the starter in preparation for games, pushing him to be better, fighting for minutes. It’s definitely really frustrating at times but with that year, helping me understand my job, is helping me a lot now.”
Discussing that preparation for matches, Willis is appreciative of the opportunity to train with the goalkeeping squad. “Working with Nico (Corti), Tyler (Deric), and Michael (Nelson) is a blessing and being coaching by Carlos (Ortiz) is the cherry on top. Working with three guys that have worked under Paul Rogers and Carlos for at least a year is unreal,” said Willis. “I’ve learned and improved so much in the short time I’ve been here. Working with Nico and Carlos on the daily has pushed me to new limits and couldn’t be happier with who I have gotten to work with during my first year of professional soccer.”
The aforementioned Corti reciprocates the respect and appreciation of Willis, outside of the board game Settlers of Catan. Corti said, “Ben is a fantastic training partner and we’ve got a really good training dynamic. He trains with a great attitude and intensity, so our sessions are always fun and productive.”
Toros head coach Gerson Echeverry said it’s important to have a GK with a strong work ethic and mind knowing the situation of being behind a #1 at RGVFC and also GK’s from the Dynamo coming down to train.
Willis has also enjoyed the Rio Grande Valley outside of soccer, despite the massive differences, especially in temperature, from his home state of Washington. Willis said, “With Top Golf, South Padre Island, and hanging with the team, it’s pretty fun!”
While he’s happy to be with the Toros, there is the issue of potentially finding a new team in the future, with little professional film to show. Does he expect that to be a major challenge? “I can let you know the true answer to that when I need a new team! But, I think yes it’ll be definitely difficult to prove myself to a future team! But, I have unbelievable people in my corner in Jean Russo and David Becker at NTL Sports to help me in my future career in soccer,” he answered.
No matter what his future holds, Willis has been a crucial figure for the RGVFC Toros this season. His hard work is appreciated by everyone involved in the club and that mindset will help his development as a professional goalkeeper.