Featured / MLS

Bad policy: SuperDrafting a goalie early

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

The Union raised a lot of eyebrows by taking Maryland goalie Zac MacMath fifth overall, passing on big-time defensive prospects like AJ Soares and Kofi Sarkodie, and turning a blind eye to strikers CJ Sapong and Will Bruin.

The Union see MacMath as a game-changer: A future US international number one who can take over a match and save shots that even very-good-goalies can only dream of keeping out. Union fans will likely get their first look at MacMath (outside of reserve league appearances) during the upcoming friendlies against Everton (Wednesday) and Real Madrid (Saturday).

So now is the right time to ask: What were the Union thinking when they used their 2011 first round pick on a goalie?

Guzan is the exception… and the rule

Drafted second overall by Chivas USA, Brad Guzan started over twenty matches twice in four years, and won more than six games only once. Chivas became a victim of Guzan’s success when he left MLS for Aston Villa.

As the following list shows, Guzan defied the odds by finding MLS success as a first rounder. But he also set a scary precedent by leaving for Europe, capitalizing on his personal accomplishments before his team had captured a single trophy with him in net.

All first round goalies

  • Chris Snitko: 5th pick to KC, 1996. Snitko spent his first professional year training with the U-23 national team. He turned into a lifetime backup who got bumped out of KC by Tony Meola and couldn’t hold down the number one job in Chicago or Dallas.
  • Jeff Cassar: 8th pick to Dallas, 1996. Now the RSL goalkeeping coach (ironic, since he was displaced by Nick Rimando in Miami), Cassar only held down a starting job for one season for the Fusion and failed to keep the number one spot anywhere else.
  • Matt Jordan: 10th pick to Dallas, 1996. A success story, Jordan started four seasons for the Burn and led them to four playoff appearances before new blood and overseas opportunities led him to Odense of Denmark.
  • Adin Brown: 3rd pick to Colorado, 2000. Traded for Carlos Valderrama early in his career, Brown signed with the Revolution when Tampa folded and had two good seasons before injuries left him looking for work. Brown has played in two games for Portland this season and is 0-2.
  • Steve Cronin: 10th pick to San Jose, 2004. No goalies picked in the first round for three years. Meanwhile Jon Busch (and Greg Sutton) snuck into the late second round. Cronin was drafted by the Quakes but didn’t get a chance to start until he ended up in LA in 2008. One season between the pipes was all he would get.
  • Brad Guzan: 2nd pick to Chivas USA, 2005. Guzan was clearly the best goalie to come out in some time when he entered the SuperDraft. He’s also the first keeper on this list to start during his rookie season. He wasn’t that bad, but the team was (something Toronto FC’s current backstop Stefan Frei can relate to). Guzan had one injury-free season in 2007 and took home the MLS Goalie of the Year award. Then he found a new home with Aston Villa in the EPL.
  • Chris Seitz: 4th pick to Real Salt Lake, 2007. The uber-talented Seitz is no stranger to Union fans. Setting all sorts of records at UMaryland, Seitz was expected to grab the reins in Utah and never let go. Instead, he struggled to find playing time behind Nick Rimando (3rd round pick Nick Rimando) and ended up in Philadelphia for a season before Seattle picked him then traded him to Dallas during the re-entry draft.
  • Josh Lambo: 8th pick to Dallas, 2008. Lambo has yet to take the field for Dallas and is currently on loan with the D2 Tampa Rowdies. Both Lambo and Seitz are on bench duty behind former 3rd round pick Kevin Hartmann.
  • Dominic Cervi: 12th pick to Chicago, 2008. Cervi chose to sign with SPL powerhouse Celtic. He has yet to make an appearance for them.

Stefan Frei

The most recent goalie drafted in the first round (before MacMath) was Stefan Frei, picked 13th by Toronto FC. Frei has put up a Seitz-like save percentage but is bursting at the seams with talent. He was linked with middling English Premier League side Stoke City last August and will find plenty of suitors should he seek a move to Europe this January.

That’s right. Frei – who has never had anything close to a winning season – can leave MLS any time he wants.

What does it all mean?

Only two goalies picked in the first round of the SuperDraft have ever started in their rookie season, so the Union’s treatment of Zac MacMath thus far is nothing new. However, those two who jumped right in – Guzan and Frei – are clearly the best of the first round bunch. Meanwhile, MLS stalwarts Jon Busch, Kevin Hartmann, Jon Conway, Nick Rimando, and current Houston starter (Update: and 2011 All-Star) Tally Hall went in later rounds and have been very successful. Hartmann is currently forcing both Seitz and Lambo to ride the pine.

Leadership takes time

This draft data points to two disturbing facts that many soccer fans already know intuitively. First, goalies take a long time to develop. A great college career is no better indicator of greatness than a very good (or even a pretty good) college career. No matter when you draft a goalie, he will need time to develop.

Union fans should have a very clear understanding of why netminders take time to bloom. The most important quality that 40-year old Faryd Mondragon has brought to Philly is his leadership skills. Mondragon’s experience and quality demands respect, but the man himself asks for that respect with his vocal and animated style. The Dragon’s antics are a far cry from Chris Seitz’s reserved on-field presence.

Mondragon has honed his style through years of ups, downs and everything in between. Young goalies, particularly those drafted high, have rarely tasted failure. Yet they are dropped onto bad teams and asked to be a near-blindly positive force on the pitch and in the locker room.

When he finds his wings, he’ll fly away

Second, American goalkeepers who prove their talent in MLS – particularly those who play big roles in the US Soccer youth program – shoot to the top of European wish lists. In the same way that Italian defenders and Brazilian strikers show up on teams across the globe, American goalies have a history of success that makes the Next Big Thing a hot commodity worldwide.

This is why an inexperienced 6’6″ guy like Dom Cervi can skip out on MLS and head straight to perennial Scottish champion Celtic; it’s why Tim Howard can get displaced at Manchester United but immediately find a home at Everton.

Are the Union falling into the same old trap?

The Union’s plan for Zac MacMath is nothing new. And, unfortunately, it is a plan with a long track record of failures. None of this should reflect poorly on MacMath. He will be judged on his own merits when his time in the spotlight comes.

But drafting a goalie in the first round is bad policy that has never yielded the desired results. That is to say, no goalie picked in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft has ever led his team to an MLS Cup win.

And if MacMath is the first to do it, don’t buy his jersey: He’ll be in Europe by the time the next January transfer window closes.

8 Comments

  1. Which also leads us back to the question, why didn’t we give Brian Perk a legitimate chance? He looked very reliable, to say the least, against Celtic and ManU but we quickly rushed him out. Knighton’s numbers are also impressive in Carolina this season. Nowak was incredibly high on our keepers last season but failed to give them any time to grow with a reliable defense. The Mondragon signing was the only positive move the Union have made to date in the goalkeeper position.

    • Completely agree. Could have had Knighton as your backup and Perk as your third string AND your pick of a high draft pick. Such a no-brainer.

      Sad choice from the FO.

      • C'mon the U says:

        If Knighton is so good why didn’t a single MLS team pick him up? DC decided to bring its goalkeeper coach out of retirement over signing Knighton.

        We will see on MacMath, interesting historical trends though. I’m excited to see him this week. If there’s a guy available that you think is “[a] future US international number one who can take over a match and save shots that even very-good-goalies can only dream of keeping out,” then I think you have to take him. We’ll see if they were right.

        I also think what’s being overlooked is that if MacMath does go to Europe, assuming its on a transfer and not when his contract is up, the Union will see a good sum of that transfer fee.

        The real mistake, in my opinion, was drafting Perk over Sean Johnson.

  2. John Shields says:

    We’ve seen this season already that we were stacked everywhere else. We have 4 forwards/offensive midfielders, so we weren’t pressed for strikers. We started out with 4 solid defenders, traded one, and found out we had one more waiting to take over.
    After last year’s “experiment” in goal, the team made 2 very calculated decisions – bring in a veteran presence in goal, and someone he can tutor. It was brilliant, and could pay off handsomely in the future.
    But the point still holds…if MacMath is as good as advertised, he’ll be in Europe by the time he’s 25. Let’s hope we get some good seasons out of him first!

  3. yup union management blow…thanks for the reminder

    • So the “union management blow” and this is why the Union are first in the East in only their second season? Are chair managers always know best I guess.

      • Adam Cann says:

        The management has done an amazing job assembling the squad… it’s the game-to-game handling of that amazingly-assembled squad and the general lack of consistency that warrants some criticism.

    • CityHeroesSpursZeros says:

      Blows? What were your expectations for this season? They are exceeding mine.

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