Galaxy keeper Josh Saunders throws the ball in play during the MLS match… (Ric Tapia / Getty Images )
Josh Saunders wants to talk about soccer. So go ahead, ask him about goals and saves and his chances of playing one day for the U.S. national team.
The only thing Saunders, 31, would prefer you not ask about is where he was during a monthlong absence from the Galaxy early this season, one that very nearly cost Major League Soccer's defending champions a trip back to the playoffs.
"It's my personal life," he says firmly. "I went away for a purpose. I chose that purpose and what I wanted to do."
Saunders, the Galaxy's starting goalkeeper, left the team less than 48 hours before a game in late April, enrolling in Major League Soccer's substance abuse and behavioral health program. He would later say his absence involved neither drugs nor alcohol, but he hasn't said what it did involve other than references to stress, pressure and "family issues."
"So let's stick with that," he says now. "I'm leaving it vague."
But there's nothing vague about what his absence — and his return — has meant to the team. The Galaxy didn't win a game while Saunders was gone, entering mid-June last in the Western Conference with eight losses — more losses than it had in any of the last three full seasons.
Since his return on Father's Day, the team is 12-3-3, with two-thirds of those wins coming on shutouts. That helped the Galaxy clinch a playoff berth and climb to third in the West standings entering its most important stretch of the season, with its next two games coming against Real Salt Lake and San Jose, the only two teams in the conference the Galaxy is still chasing.
Seeding is vital in the postseason with the Galaxy needing to finish second in the conference to guarantee itself home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It also has some ground to make up against teams in the Eastern Conference, because the Galaxy starts the weekend trailing four Eastern teams in points, which is significant given that the MLS Cup will be hosted by the finalist with the highest regular-season total.
"We've got to get there first," Saunders cautions.
But that the Galaxy can even consider such a scenario is, in large part, a credit to its goalkeeper.
"I can't say our turnaround is attributed to Josh returning, but it certainly has helped, no question about it," Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena says. "He's done a good job for us."
In many ways Saunders' season mirrors his career in that he started slowly, fell from view, then rallied with the kind of spectacular play few — including, at times, Saunders himself — expected from a fourth-round draft pick.
"There's always points where you doubt it. But at the same time you have to keep that constant belief," says Saunders, who spent half his career playing for lower-division teams in his native Oregon, in Miami and in Puerto Rico before playing his first game for the Galaxy in 2008. "If you're going to stick with it and go through those leagues and do that you have to be prepared.
"And I was lucky enough to catch a break."
The break in question was actually a fractured forearm, which sent the Galaxy's regular keeper, Donovan Ricketts, to the sidelines for two months last summer. For Saunders, who had started only eight MLS games prior to last season, it was the opportunity he had been preparing for — and it was one he seized, starting 15 of the Galaxy's final 18 games, losing only once during the team's title run. Nine of those games ended in shutouts, including the Galaxy's 1-0 win in the MLS Cup final, the first shutout in the league's championship game in six years.
That performance was rewarded a week after the season when Arena approached Saunders on a team flight to an exhibition in Indonesia and told him the team was trading Ricketts. Saunders would go into the season as a starter for the first time.
This season didn't start well, though, with Saunders surrendering seven goals in his first three games. Three games later he was gone, leaving empty the position he had waited so long to fill to take care of something he refuses to discuss.
But if he has any regrets, he's not talking about them either.
"There's certain necessities that are more important than others," he says. "Doing that was what I felt was more important."