Right from the start we were shown that our young replacement for Nick Rimando had the makings to be the guy the other teams love to hate.
In Real Salt Lake’s first game of the 2021 season, the team was on the road against Minnesota United, scoring two first half goals off of MU’s defensive mistakes. Ochoa really wasn’t tested too much, and he did allow one late goal in that he probably could have saved with better placement, but by that time he had already started on the time-wasting gamesmanship that started tweaking the Loons collectively on the nose. Once the final whistle blew, rather than relieving the pressure — everything exploded.
Ochoa kicked the ball into the lightly populated “Wonderwall,” Minnesota’s supporter’s section, and the already irritated Loons went “full-looney.” Adrian Heath shouted at the referees, players clashed, staff tried desperately to keep everyone apart, and Ochoa was calmly escorted off the field showing no reaction to all the hubbub. He would later received a monetary fine from MLS, but for roughly the next two weeks the issue was headline material. It would also be brought up in passing by nearly every commentator for the rest of the season.
“I definitely want to get into the opposing team’s head. When I take my time on goal-kicks and when I waste time, it’s to get into their heads and not let them get into a rhythm. And when I shush the fans, it’s also to get the crowd buzzing. I like when they’re talking smack behind me, I think it makes me play better.”
— David Ochoa, Nov. 2021.
The next game was RSL’s first home game of the season against rival Sporting Kansas City, and a new tradition was announced: Ochoa would kick the game ball into the stands after the game. The “feud” was resolved roughly three weeks into the season, but by then Ochoa’s reputation as a player who could rile up the other team was set firmly in stone.
The capstone of the season came in the first playoff game against Seattle Sounders.
RSL went full-defense for the match, and officially Ochoa only had three saves — the same number of shots on goal that Seattle took out of the 21 shots attempted. He was constantly chirping at opponents, and at the referee, receiving a yellow card for dissent in the 50th minute. When he got a a hold of the ball he fell on it, sucking additional time off the clock in every way possible. He also drew the ire of fans by shushing and feigning that he couldn’t hear them. He was the hero for RSL in the end with a penalty kick save in the sixth round that gave Justen Glad the game winning penalty.
For his part, Ochoa has credited Cristiano Ronaldo and Kobe Bryant as his main influences, and in 2021 for the most part it paid off well, even drawing rare praise from the likes of former USMNT defender Alexi Lalas, who declared that Ochoa in 2021 was the perfect villain for MLS.
What does 2022 hold? It’s certain that he will remain the starting keeper for RSL, and that he will continue to try and get underneath opponents skin. Of course, it’s possible that the other teams in MLS now know what to expect and will be warned that the best way to silence the villain is to score first and often, but fans will continue to get riled up when his performance goes against them, and of course there will always be some players who fall for the trash-talk and make mistakes. When it happens to fall RSL’s way, the legend will continue to grow.