One of David Ochoa‘s first training sessions with D.C. United saw him come face-to-face with a legend. DCU manager Wayne Rooney decided to take part in a shooting drill, and promptly scored on the newly acquired goalkeeper.
“Then [Rooney] started talking smack,” Ochoa told ESPN with a grin. “It was hilarious. He told me, ‘How can I still score on you with this belly that I have?’ We all had a laugh and it’s crazy. I could officially say that I saved Wayne Rooney’s shot, but I can also say I got scored on by Wayne Rooney. I don’t mind saying that.”
That Ochoa finds himself playing for the Black and Red, instead of the Claret and Cobalt of Real Salt Lake, 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 final, made him the toast of the Wasatch Front. It didn’t matter that his attitude might have rubbed people the wrong way. He was not only looked upon as the latest success story from RSL’s academy, but as a new villain in a league that is often crying out for personalities.
The 2022 campaign was thought to be a season in which Ochoa would continue his rise up the rankings of MLS keepers. Instead, the relationship between player and club entered a downward spiral, so much so that prior to getting shipped to DCU, Ochoa was told to train with the Real Monarchs, RSL’s reserve side that competes in MLS Next Pro.
“They didn’t want me anywhere near the first-team guys,” said Ochoa. “So it [was] very frustrating.”
So how did Ochoa and RSL get to this point, one where he essentially became persona non grata?
Any analysis of Ochoa’s last seven months with RSL has to 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 places him 54th among MLS goalkeepers. RSL did offer him improved terms, but sources confirm it was outside the top 10 of keepers in the league. (The Seattle Sounders‘ Stefan Frei has the 10th-highest guaranteed compensation among keepers at $500,000.)
“If you asked me six months ago, I would have loved the idea of staying at Salt Lake and sticking at the club that I’ve spent so many years at,” Ochoa said. “But [RSL] started playing hardball with me and I didn’t like it. So I would say maybe five months ago, I was waiting for a new change, ready for a new start. I told my agent to start looking.”
With Ochoa’s current deal expiring at the end of the 2022 season, there was urgency to either get a deal done or transfer him. Ochoa admitted his family situation was also on his mind. He is the oldest of seven children and was eager to help his family out to a greater degree — in particular his father, who spends 10-hour days working construction.
“I was just starting to think, maybe he doesn’t have to work that much and maybe you can really just enjoy life and not work that tough, tough schedule that I know a lot of people work,” Ochoa said. “But I was just trying to help them out a little bit.”
Throughout soccer, it’s not unheard of for a club to bench a player in a bid to force them to sign a new contract. That doesn’t seem to be the case in this instance. Ochoa was, after all, the starter heading into the season. But in RSL’s last preseason game against the Portland Timbers, he injured his quad and later sustained a finger injury. The two ailments combined to keep him out for over eight weeks. In Ochoa’s absence, RSL looked a much more competitive side than what was predicted prior to the start of the season, going 3-2-3 in their first eight matches with goalkeeper Zac MacMath performing well.
When Ochoa was healthy enough to return, his expectation was that he would immediately be put in the starting lineup. Manager Pablo Mastroeni opted to stick with MacMath. It is at this stage that there is a bit of he-said/he-said that goes on. Ochoa said he and Mastroeni “didn’t talk much,” while Mastroeni contends there was a steady dialogue, leading him to quip, “If you’re not listening, I guess no one’s talking.”
So after years of steadily climbing the ladder, Ochoa was faced with his first bit of professional adversity. He felt he was doing what was asked. Mastroeni’s view was that Ochoa didn’t take the news well.
“[Ochoa] was tardy a couple times, and just training habits weren’t up to par,” Mastroeni told ESPN. “At that point, we had quite a few conversations about being a professional footballer. It’s not always about starting. It’s about understanding how to conduct yourself within a club. We have club rules, we have team rules, locker rules, and you have to abide by those, regardless of who you are, or what you did last year.
“Everyone wants to move forward. And if you’re clinging on to the past, there’s always going to be that bit of you’re gonna be resistant somewhere.”
Ochoa stated that he felt he was one of the top five keepers in MLS in 2021, and that his performances should have resulted in him being given the benefit of the doubt. He felt any rift with his teammates was down to his personality.
“I feel like me, being able to play these types of [playoff] games and be at this level, I felt like it almost gave me a confidence boost,” he said. “My mentality changed a little bit and maybe it didn’t suit a lot of people’s heads that this 21-year-old kid was almost bossing around 30-year-olds and men that were 10, maybe even 15 years older than me, so I think that’s what it was.”
Left unexplained is why that was an issue in 2022, and not in 2021. As Ochoa peels back the layers on his last few months with RSL, though, he admits to some fraying relationships with his teammates. In early May, he recalled a locker room confrontation with a teammate — who sources have identified as veteran midfielder Justin Meram — and that shortly after, the team’s leadership council went to Mastroeni and said that something needed to be done in terms of dealing with Ochoa. Mastroeni added there were multiple “flareups” 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 was tough mentally for him to go backwards 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 as the team struggled. Eventually, Ochoa went back home to Oxnard, Calif. to clear his head, but when he returned, it was deemed that he hadn’t done enough to improve his standing to merit inclusion in first-team training.
“There’s a plan that we had in place as a club for him to get to that point,” said Mastroeni about the possibility of Ochoa’s returning at one stage. “And he refused to follow the plan, which was training with the Monarchs for an extended amount of time to show that his behavior has changed, that he wants to be the change. And he just never went through with it. And so it was always available. And again, it was done with everyone at the club, including his agent and himself.”
Mastroeni recalled that in the MLS of old, such lessons would have largely been delivered — and learned — when a player was in college, a period when the responsibilities of performing both on the field and in the classroom required a certain discipline. But while the college game still has its place, those days are largely gone forever, both for good and for ill. Rising through the ranks in a team’s academy is now the well-worn path to a professional contract. Instead, Mastroeni was left to rue that “I don’t think this situation is anyone’s fault. It’s just life and how it works.”
Perhaps, but both sides were damaged by how things played out. Ochoa is player who was in demand by two national teams — he ultimately opted for Mexico over the United States — and RSL lost him for just $75,000 in allocation money. There’s a chance that more money could be headed RSL’s way, but only if Ochoa ends up signing a new contract with D.C. United. More can be acquired if DCU transfers Ochoa out of the league, but the odds of that seem long. With the likes of Barcelona and Manchester United having tracked him in the past, there appears to still be a market for Ochoa.
Time will reveal the extent to which Ochoa’s own reputation has been harmed, but that time can also be spent putting things right. To that end, he feels the change of scenery has him done him good. There’s a familiar face in goalkeeper coach Diego Restrepo, who Ochoa knew from when he was in residency with the U.S. U17 national team. He’s also excited to play for Rooney.
Ochoa’s lone start for the Black and Red so far came in a 1-0 defeat to league leaders LAFC, and while an ill-timed stumble played a part in the goal he conceded, he also delivered some sharp saves to keep a 10-man DCU side in the match. With the team trying to play out of the back more under Rooney, Ochoa is also eager to test his distribution skills.
Any talk of what’s next can’t help but drift to whether he’ll head overseas when his contract expires, though. He’s wisely keeping his options open, and having felt the sting of sitting on the bench, he wants to make sure he lands in a good situation.
“There’s teams that are interested in Europe right now. But at the same time, me being able to stay in this league and keep getting games, it also catches my eye,” Ochoa said. “I don’t want to be out there and not playing and stuff. So we’ll see at the end of the season what my options are and then I’m going to start from that.”
For now, there is still much that Ochoa can do to salvage something from the season. There are lessons to be applied, games to be played and bragging rights with his manager to be earned.