Red Bull Arena has many wonderful design elements, but perhaps its only flaw is the elements themselves -- especially the heat. And when it's hot outside the stadium, the protected air inside the grounds can mimic a stale and sweltering sauna. Especially during day games. Especially in July.
So, naturally, those were the exact conditions for Bill Gaudette's very first match as New York Red Bulls starting goalkeeper.
"I'm a New York guy. Just walking out with that jersey on through the tunnel, it was great to play in front of all my friends and family," Gaudette says of his debut that Sunday afternoon in 2012 against the Seattle Sounders. "It was pretty special. I'll never forget that one."
But how about that 100-degree weather? "It was terrible."
Undeterred, he provided Red Bulls with strong defensive cover, and the team battled back from an early Sounders goal to earn a 2-2 draw. And Gaudette continued to provide solid goalkeeping throughout that first week -- a week which for some maddening reason Red Bulls had scheduled three hot afternoon games inside seven days. Again undeterred, Gaudette provided two clean sheets over his next two matches.
Just as he powered through the elements that week, Gaudette has also powered through a soccer career spanning across North America and the Caribbean, from New York to Columbus to Los Angeles to Puerto Rico.
And now Gaudette's journey has led him back to the tristate area -- as goalkeeping coach for the Jersey Express, a Newark-based PDL team, who are by no coincidence the opponents of New York Red Bulls II this Wednesday night in the U.S. Open Cup (8:00 p.m. Eastern at New Jersey Institute of Technology).
"It's going to be good," Gaudette says. "I look forward to seeing some of the old faces."
And while he keeps in touch with his old Red Bulls teammates, Gaudette says, "When it's time to go out there and compete, I'm out there representing Jersey Express. Hopefully we get the result."
As a goalkeeping coach, Gaudette draws from his experience as a defensive leader on squads in both MLS and NASL, but some of his seminal career moments come from playing in Puerto Rico -- both professionally in the USL and on the island's national team.
But how did Bill Gaudette -- Pennsylvania-born, St. John's graduate, non-Spanish-speaker -- end up playing for the Puerto Rican national team? It all started one day when he was a player for the Columbus Crew, where he impressed Colin Clarke -- who was managing his opponent on that occasion, FC Dallas.
"I had a pretty solid match," Gaudette says. "And [Clarke] was like, 'You really did well, son.'"
Clarke later moved to Puerto Rico to coach the USL First Division Puerto Rican Islanders, but the Northern Irish manager remembered Gaudette's performance and one day made contact with the goalkeeper.
"[He] was one of the first people to call my agent and begged me to come down there," Gaudette says. "And I wasn't sure if I really wanted to do that."
But Clarke was persuasive enough to convince Gaudette to join an upstart squad which also featured former Red Bull Jonny Steele and Philadelphia Union defender Cristian Arrieta. And that Islanders squad shocked the soccer world by reaching the semifinals of the 2008-'09 CONCACAF Champions League as a second-division club.
Gaudette gives kudos to Clarke for the team's success: "Colin was the driving force behind that, and he built a great team down there. We had a lot of great players, and obviously it showed. And taking a USL team all the way to the semifinals of the Champions League, it was a great experience."
It was such a great experience, in fact, that Gaudette sought full-time residency on the island in order to join the Puerto Rican national squad in 2012.
"Their national team was doing some special things," he says. "Obviously, we got to play in the qualifiers for Gold Cup and played against teams like Spain, which was ranked number-one in the world at the time and had a complete all-star team. It was just a joy to be a part of that and go out there."
Puerto Rico lost to Spain 2-1 in that friendly, but Gaudette gave a standout performance, notching 17 saves and keeping his squad close the whole match.
"It was wild. It was probably one of the highlights of my career. It was one of my best matches."
His time in Puerto Rico was especially rewarding, he says, because "it was great just to see what soccer is doing for the island down there and to be a part of that kind of development and giving back. It was just special."
Injuries caught up to Gaudette by the end of his stint at Red Bulls, and he hasn't played professionally since. But that doesn't mean the 33-year-old has slowed down.
In fact, in lieu of playing soccer full-time, Gaudette has moved on to training for a considerably less leisurely event: the Ironman competition, a grueling triad of swimming, cycling, and running, considered one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world.
"I kind of got addicted to it," he explains. "I was doing some off-season stuff to mix the training up. A lot of bike work and a lot of swimming was something that my coaches in the past really were hammering me for. They saw the value in it, and I think it's great for changing up strategies for a goalkeeper that takes all that pounding."
It's not just the training element that keeps Gaudette engaged. It's also his long-demonstrated drive to win.
"It's something for me to kind of compete in still, because I'm a very competitive guy, and I need to go out there and find some sort of challenge."
Gaudette, though, doesn't take the challenge lightly. "It's one of those things you respect these guys and ladies tremendously that go out there and do it. It's a tough realm of sports."
So how can a guy with enough fitness and energy to do Ironman stay out of professional soccer?
"That's been the hardest thing, to say no to a lot of these opportunities out there, different coaches and agents," he says. "People still give me a buzz here and there, because I'm still involved in the game enough and still young enough. But I just don't think my body could take it, and I would never put myself in a situation where I wasn't at the top of my game."
So while his body has limited Gaudette's physical contribution to soccer, he is moving on to teaching what he knows to the next generation of keepers. Most of his PDL pupils at Jersey Express are college players looking for amateur summer experience to both increase their footballing acumen and round out their annual schedule.
"We're out here really just trying to develop these guys," Gaudette says. "[The players] want to get a glimpse into what professional soccer is at a day-to-day level. And I'm trying to share my experiences with them to hopefully get them the same opportunities that I had to go out there and play."
Gaudette points to the growth of soccer in the United States as an important reason to experience the PDL.
"It's getting harder and harder to become a pro in the U.S. I think the league is getting better and better, and the quality is getting better and better," he says. "It takes more of a commitment, more year-round commitment. So it's something I'm just trying to share my experiences with and go out there and have a little fun with the guys."
Gaudette takes some guidance from his former Red Bulls manager, Hans Backe, as well. "Hans was very tactical in what he wanted to do," he says. "Obviously, he's a wealth of knowledge, coming from, you know, every league overseas. I took his ability to break it down tactically and implement that into sessions."
And while his focus is on goalkeepers, Gaudette says Jersey Express Manager Anderson DaSilva and General Manager Gali Maimon have put him in a key role. "Gali and everybody asked me to take more of a leadership role in this and try to help out. So I'm implementing some of the different coaching strategies and things like that into the sessions and just trying to be a valuable asset to the team."
While melding the minds of young goalkeepers is his focus right now, Gaudette doesn't count out playing soccer again entirely, however.
"I know I can still play," he says. "The problem is, I don't know if my body would be able to take a full year of training with the game."
However, he says a goalkeeping return to his adopted Caribbean home could be in the cards. "If Puerto Rico ever needed something, I would go down there and play for sure. I know they've got some qualifiers coming up, and they're begging me to play, so you never know." ∎