Analysis / Season Reviews

Season Reviews: The goalkeepers

Photo: Paul Rudderow and Earl Gardner

After a slow start to the season, the Philadelphia Union were finally turning it around. Jim Curtin was getting the most out of his players with a new counterattacking style and emphasis on the defensive end with a good deal of assistance coming from a red hot Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey. The club was 5-1-2 in MLS and Open Cup games since Curtin’s introduction as interim head coach, and fans were looking forward to a big name signing or two that would bolster the forward and defensive ranks.

The Union got their big name defensive signing with the return of Carlos Valdes following the World Cup and his extended loan spell with Santa Fe and San Lorenzo. They also got a more controversial and questionable signing in Rais Mbolhi. The immediate question was, “Why?” With Zac MacMath’s improved form and the presence of Andre Blake on the bench, many felt that the Union’s goalkeeping needs had been met for the immediate future. Few felt that a move for a new goalkeeper was worth unsettling MacMath and Blake. Even fewer felt that 240,000 dollars on the salary cap should have been dedicated to the position’s improvement.

Zac MacMath

In the minds of many observers, Zac MacMath’s 2014 season was the strongest and most consistent of his career. He possessed a level of poise and command of his box that he had never shown before. Other key improvements were evident in his positioning and anticipation of shots and crosses. Unlike his past seasons as the Union No. 1, he didn’t allow many soft goals and played more like the MLS veteran that he has become. He is also highly underrated with the ball at his feet, and his distribution has made leaps and bounds since his rookie year. He is fully capable of regularly clearing balls high, wide, and far with both feet, and in the case of a rare miskick, the ball ends up out of bounds, and out of harm’s way.

MacMath started 29 games in 2014 during which he posted a 63 percent save percentage and a goals against average of 1.55. Frankly, these numbers are underwhelming for an MLS regular. Of the 23 goalkeepers who started 11 or more games, MacMath ranked 19th in save percentage and 17th in goals against average. The number aren’t entirely fair, as the first half of MacMath’s season was spent with a makeshift defense in front of him that allowed a tremendous amount of high percentage shots. But with the exception of his 3 penalty saves in the early in the season (and his stops in the US Open Cup semifinal against Dallas), and the occasional brilliant game that he turned out, MacMath in 2014 showed himself to be exactly what the Union front office and staff thought he was, an average to below-average MLS goalkeeper.

None of this takes away from the fact that MacMath was hard done by the Union front office, nor does it change the fact that the current goalkeeper situation is a fault of the staff, and not MacMath himself, but it does mean one thing. If the Union are to become an elite team, Zac MacMath is just not good enough. That’s not to say he can’t be; he is only 23 after all. But he needs to show tremendous improvement in the most essential parts of any goalkeeper’s game, shot stopping and communication.

Andre Blake

In his one MLS start against Houston, Andre Blake showcased the athleticism and raw ability that made him the No. 1 draft pick of 2014. He also showed that, despite his tremendous natural talent, he has a lot of areas in his game that need improvement.

Blake is an absolutely outstanding shot-stopper, evidenced by his saves against Houston and Crystal Palace. While he made key mistakes in both games that are typical of a rookie goalkeeper, he also put on a tremendous display of athleticism, leaving would-be scorers on both teams frustrated.

Despite his excellent shot-stopping ability, Blake needs to make great strides in his reading of crosses, communication, distribution, and rebound control if he wants to become an MLS regular. These points are typical weaknesses in the game of an MLS rookie, and will undoubtedly improve with experience. The only one of these weaknesses that is cause for alarm is Andre’s rebound control. In a perfect world, every shot is either caught, punched out of the box to the wide areas, or pushed out of bounds, but Andre has far too many of his saves end up in the central areas of the 18 yard box (also a point of concern in MacMath’s game).

Despite these weaknesses, Andre has the most upside of the Union goalkeeping trio by a long shot. With improved technique he could be playing in the All-Star game and more importantly, playoff games in the near future.

Rais Mbolhi

Cap space and displacement of others aside, the signing of Rais Mbolhi undoubtedly improved the Union at the goalkeeping position. Mbolhi is a veteran of two World Cups, and at 28 years old, comes to the Union in the prime years of most goalkeepers. He is remarkably strong, athletic, well poised in his box, and is by far the most polished of the goalkeeping core. While he doesn’t belong in a class with the likes of Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, he possesses a skill set considered elite in an intermediate league such as MLS. But for all his strengths and potential upside, Mbolhi brings so many questions and concerns to Philadelphia.

The biggest concern of all is his consistency. From 2003 to the present day, Mbolhi has played for 12 different clubs including the Union. The longest amount of time he has spent with any club was Marseille B from 2003-2005. The Union made moves for Mbolhi so that they could lock up an elite level goalkeeper for the long term, and all past evidence suggests that they won’t receive that here. Since he signed with the Union on July 5, he has had to miss nine games for various reasons including international callups, the birth of his child, a car accident, and visa issues. He also missed two more games because he returned from his travels a day or two prior and wasn’t prepared to the degree that he and the coaching staff felt was necessary to start.

Due to these various circumstances, Mbolhi was only able to start four games for the Union. He had no particularly notable moments in his first three starts, allowing no goals that could be considered saveable by any goalkeeper on the Union roster. He played crosses very well and showed good judgement on when to make a play on the ball and when to hold his line, outside of a scare against San Jose in which a he allowed a cross to bounce harmlessly off the crossbar. He also maintained good communication with his backline and had them playing well together. The primary concern with him was his distribution, which came into play in his season finale.

Unfortunately, Rais Mbolhi’s season will be remembered for one critical mistake he made in stoppage time against Chicago. He had played well throughout the game, going largely untested and organizing his backline well throughout. At the end of the game and defending a one goal lead, Mbolhi mishit a clearance directly to Chicago’s Robert Earnshaw and stood hopelessly in no man’s land as the ball was hit over him and into his goal. It was a painfully ironic end to the season for a man that was acquired to help the Union steal points from the opposition, not give them away.

What does the future hold?

As previously stated, hoarding three goalkeepers of starting quality on the same roster is a waste of talent, 2 international spots, and cap space. The Union cannot keep these three goalkeepers on their team through the 2014 season. Not only is it detrimental to the Union’s success, it is also unfair to these three goalkeepers, all of whom are starting quality players in this league, and other leagues abroad.

But who do they keep? At first, the Union looked to trade away Zac MacMath and Andre Blake in order to get some kind of tangible return for them, but with the Expansion and Re-entry drafts looming, they found a low demand for the two. Their next option was to leave Mbolhi and MacMath unprotected in the Expansion draft (Blake was automatically protected by his Generation Addidas status). It is assumed that they would have immediately protected one, had the other been picked up. But there were other goalkeepers available that were more proven commodities than MacMath, and no one was interested in Mbolhi with his high salary.

This leaves the Union with the same three goalkeepers on their roster, two of whom will miss games this season with their respective national teams, and one of whom is eating up a minimum of 240,000 dollars worth of cap space (a figure will surely be higher in 2015). It’s highly unlikely that these three goalkeepers and the Union will all emerge from this situation unscathed.

22 Comments

  1. yea… I got nothing.

  2. Tell you right now Andre Blake is a stud. His issue is game time. The only way he will reach potential (learning the nuance and instinct necessary to excel) is by playing so either play him and learn the bumps on the way or loan him as the starting keeper somewhere else. This dude is an outstanding athlete. No way McMath makes the saves Blake is capable of. The guy was our #1 draft pick. Anchor of the team in the future, right? please — we didn’t waste the top pick last year did we?
    .
    or do we unload him for whatever we can get, thereby still wasting the top pick and go with Rais and McMath who is an excellent back up solution.
    .
    ‘Has anybody seen the bridge? I’m just trying to find the bridge. Where’s that confounded bridge?’

  3. How much of Mbolhi’s salary would have been better spent on a higher quality striker last season than Brian Brown, put towards a better offer to Okugo, or towards the ‘DP striker’ that is promised in 2015? This move is the perfect example of the ineptitude of Union FO. The signing should never have been made without a deal already in place to move MacMath or Blake.

  4. The Superdraft will be here before you know it. Any chance there will be a quality GK prospect left for the Union to pick up with the 31st pick?

  5. old soccer coach says:

    somewhere earlier in the year I got the impression that Mbohli is a DP because of transfer fees involved in his signing and that he will not be a DP in future years when the transfer fees no longer apply. I apologize for not being able to cite my sources.

    The other goalkeeper “tea leaf” worth mentioning is that the Harrisburg back-up keeper Brian Sylvestre was on the field during warm-ups for one Union home game late in the season when MacMath was starting and the other two were away. You will recall that they had Nick Noble in camp during preseason in January.

    If Harrisburg would give Blake the time over Nick Noble, loaning him to HCI would created the game experience opportunities he did not get last season.

  6. Rais is gonna be a MLS success.

  7. 1. Signing Rais was a weird move, to be certain, but people have let that infect their view of the guy as a player, which is silly. He’s here. Evaluate HIM on his own merits, not on what we think of the Front Office.

    2. We saw him very little for our squad (and he made one catastrophic f-up), but people around here seem to forget that the dude held off the World. Freakin. Cup. Champions. Who were like a buzzsaw. In a display of play that made him the talk of the tournament. It is highly likely that this guy will be a substantial upgrade at the position.

    3. Sometimes the rest of the league values a player more than we do (as is reportedly the case with Fabinho), and sometimes less. It is clear that the rest of the league doesn’t value Zac much, and certainly less than we do.

    4. Given all this, the logical thing to do with the GK situation is nothing – until the middle of the season. At that point, we should have seen enough of Rais to know if we got our money’s worth. If we did – which is likely – then the thing to do is to trade Blake, who presumably would have some real trade value and would be wasted on our bench. We can’t get anything for Zac, so we should just plan to keep him, as he is, at a minimum, an excellent backup keeper. And maybe he could develop into a truly good starter too, over time.

    5. If Rais looks like a dog by the middle of the season, it might be worth benching him and letting Zac and Blake play. Then we can try to unload Rais either during or after the season. And we let the other two battle for the starting spot, and may the best man win. (In this scenario, the front office looks even worse for signing Rais, but that’s a topic for a different thread.)

    If you plan to keep Zac, and trade either Rais or Blake, then your international date coverage problem is solved.

    • So much level-headed, open-minded thinking…where am I?

    • 1. It was a weird move, But that kick directly to the other team costing us 3 points helped infect many a fan.

      2. Still lost tho.

      3.This has been a bad offseason to move goalkeepers. With players like Dan Kennedy out there it was a buyers market. I also suspect the Union are trying to get maximum value for their players. While on the surface it seems like a prudent business strategy but sometimes you need to cut your losses.
      (I also suspect trying to get some value for your keepers is a good face saving strategy but at this point cut your losses)

      4.How many goddamn keepers do we need? How much money are you prepared to have tied up on a position that can have only one player on the field. What are you prepared to sacrifice to keep them til mid season? Sell Valdes? Not sign Edu? Make do with what you can for CDM? no matter eho is on the field there is gonna be another keeper on the bench popping 20$ bills into his mouth.

      5. If Rais looks like a disaster by the middle of the season we are screwed. He will have no sale/trade value and will be like Juan Diego Gonzales all over again.

  8. So conflicted. Love MacMath, but I agree, his stats confirm my fear, that he has been performing below average for MLS.
    .
    In Mbolhi, the U did find a keeper of elite quality at a bargain basement price. A recipe for success for a team that wont spend the big dollars, but obviously an excess with the current roster. If we shed at least one goalie and get something of trade value, and Mbolhi is retained, he can certainly improve the team.
    .
    Yet…he’s a complicated one. Why has he changed clubs so frequently? Could it be that the Algerian jersey is his Superman cape and his World Cup performance is not typical for him? If you haven’t seen the video, I would encourage people to take at look at these on the Union site:

    http://www.philadelphiaunion.com/news/2014/12/union-goalkeeper-rais-mbolhi-light-weve-never-seen-courtesy-frances-clique-tv

  9. Anyone know if Mbolhi’s family is moving to the States? I think the answer to that question is the answer to the question of whether he will be successful and stable here.

  10. To me the logical (yes I realize it’s the Union) move would be to keep MacMath and Mbohli. Loan Blake if possible, if not make a trade for him that will bring some needed skill and depth to the team. I say this because Zac is a servicable backup who is not going to be called up for international duty. If we have to go into the season with this issue still hanging over everything this organiztion is the absolutely the new Chivas USA!

    • I agree this is absolutely the logical solution. Between cup games and M’Bohli missing time for Algeria, Zac will get at least a handful of starts and might even win back the job if Rais isn’t playing well. Blake needs to play, MacMath and M’Bohli need competition, and the Union need a backup goalie that isn’t going to be unavailable for 5-6 games of the season. I would strongly prefer loaning Blake but I would not at all be opposed to trading him if it nets us a player that will help right now.

  11. Before we go crazy and trade a goaltender, lets wait for what Curtains mid-season replacement has to say about the situation. Its only fair that he has a say in the decision.

  12. If I’m Curtin, I play M’Bolhi and give spot starts to MacMath and Blake in US Open Cup, friendlies and some MLS matches. If M’Bolhi plays well, you’ll likely have a chance to sell him at the end of 2015 to a team in Europe as he is just entering his prime. Then, you decide which young GK is progressing the best and make that one the starter (likely Blake).

    This is what I did in Football Manager and it worked out pretty well (sold M’Bolhi for $3M and lost MacMath in the expansion draft). Blake is now my starter and has really gotten good. I’m guessing that this is how the Union thought things could play out here as well.

    As annoying as it was adding M’Bolhi last year when the team had other pressing needs, he is a major upgrade over the other two. Plus, given the long playing lives of keepers, both MacMath and Blake have a lot of time left in their careers.

  13. I think I am the only one who is looking forward to the USOC competition this year. I have stated this a number of times. Loan out Blake, start Rais and have MacMath as the backup. Let MacMath play in the USOC and have Rais handle MLS. As others have stated Rais needs to show why he is worthy of $240,000. If he doesn’t transfer him during the summer window and let Blake battle MacMath. Happy New Year Union fans!!!!!!!!!!

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