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Zac MacMath: Leadership and emotions

Photo: Earl Gardner

Zac MacMath is not used to losing. It’s easy to forget that the Union’s opening day loss at Portland was the young goalie’s first defeat as a professional.

At Maryland, MacMath lost a total of ten games over three seasons. His goals against average never topped 0.88, and he went from National Champion as a freshman to first team All-ACC as a sophomore to first team All-American as a junior.

And he did not win awards based on reputation. He earned them.

In his first year as a pro, MacMath went 3-0-4 and played with a stoic maturity that made Faryd Mondragon dispensable. Whenever MacMath has been offered the starting job, he has taken it and never looked back.

And so, on his twenty-first birthday, Zac MacMath finds himself in the midst of a roller coaster season full of injuries and mental mistakes. That he has the talent to carry a team is not in question. But was he ready to do it in 2012? And can he leave the first two-thirds of 2012 in his rearview and turn a strong defense into the type of back line that drags a limping offense into the playoffs?

Too mature?

That aforementioned stoicism has served MacMath well in his career. Unlike the Union’s first starting goalie, this Maryland product shows few signs of distress when things go awry.

Have a short memory, learn from your mistakes, and let your teammates know you are back in charge.

MacMath has the first two down.

Lately, however, MacMath has been less Charles in Charge and more Chachi.

Questions from KC

The low point for the young goalie came in the US Open Cup semifinal against Kansas City, when he misjudged Jacob Peterson’s header and hung his head as the ball slipped inside the near post. It was a mental mistake that a confident keeper never makes, and the magnitude of the situation only rubbed salt in the wound.

In the past, Union fans gave MacMath a pass, citing his age, inexperience and the endless array of aggressive saves he has made throughout the season as signs that the young star would bounce back.

The Kansas City goal seems to have caused some reassessments. Was MacMath really ready to back one of the youngest teams in MLS history? Was he really learning from his mistakes, or was he just… forgetting them?

Wenger goal causes worries

Against Montreal, MacMath was beaten by an Andrew Wenger header that only a spectacular reaction save could have prevented. Yet, there have been murmurs that the Union keeper not only could have, but should have made the stop.

In a sport where players often peak at a young age, Zac MacMath is playing the only position where late bloomers are commonplace. He has just turned twenty-one, has seen his captain and defensive leader traded, and has played behind teammates learning the center back position for the rest of the season. There is every reason to believe that he will climb out of what is a relatively shallow trough. He is that good and, if his brief collegiate and pro career is any indication, he will get that much better.

Emotional release

For Zac MacMath, the path to greatness will not run through the training ground, the video suite, or the weight room. Climbing beyond his current plateau will require the Union number one to step out of the stoic place that he uses to grow as a player. A real leader knows that emotions can say more than any words or self-control.

Emotions like anger, sadness, shame and happiness are universal; everyone uses the same muscles to express them. They cross cultures and communicate things that cannot be said as powerfully with any verbal language.

Zac MacMath can play an emotional game, but he rarely lets it show in his body language or on his face. His teammates will say they can tell how much each match, each save, and each moment mean to MacMath. And, on the birthday that for many people involves some of the most immature decisions of their adult lives, Zac MacMath has to learn that maturity is not just emotional control, but emotional release.

Leadership sometimes requires that you let your teammates know you can be hurt, lose confidence, be broken. And that you can share that pain even as you rise above it.

The Union need leadership from their youthful core. They need it from Zac MacMath.

And to rise as a leader, MacMath first has to let go of his carefully cultivated self-control. He has to show he is willing to fall, so when he rises he will carry his team with him.


  1. If anything I think ZM18 should channel the spirit of his predecessor. Mondragon wore his emotions on his sleeve, on and off the field, and nobody could doubt his leadership ability.

    • I always had a certain doubt about Mondragons leadership style. At what point do you start to tune out the screaming wildly gesticulating maniac in the net? At what point does it get old?

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