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Time for a fearless goalkeeper

Photo: Paul Rudderow

If opening day was any indication, Philadelphia Union are one player away from being a fairly good team.

That player is a good, fearless goalkeeper. Whether his name is Zac MacMath, Chris Konopka, or something else remains to be seen.

The Union spent the first 40 minutes against Kansas City playing some of the most fluid soccer they’ve ever shown. Their attacking midfield hummed like a well-oiled machine, winning possession and creating chances with short ground passes and well-timed through balls. (Both Farfans on wings? Love.) The fullbacks fired forward like missiles shot from an F-16. Their prodigal striker struck a pretty goal (and could have had another) from Keon Daniel’s exquisitely lofted pass. Philadelphia outshot Kansas City 17 to 7 for the day. It was enough to overlook the sacrifice of a second striker for a second holding midfielder.

But the Union’s goalkeeper looked like a college kid outmatched by Kansas City’s white-haired professional.

If you put Jimmy Nielsen in Philadelphia’s net and MacMath in Kansas City’s, the Union win that game. Nielsen pulled off save after save after save for Kansas City, made easy shots more difficult, and bailed his team out when necessary. MacMath saved just one of four shots on goal, and he spilled that lone save right to Graham Zusi for a rebound goal.

MacMath has the physical tools to be a good MLS goalkeeper. He’s a good athlete and a quick, reflexive shot-stopper.

But he plays the game scared, like a wide-eyed deer looking down the barrel of a hunter’s shotgun. It’s 2010 Chris Seitz all over again.

Dismantle the goals

Watch the first goal.

After Kansas City’s Bobby Convey makes a beautiful play to split two defenders and create a scoring chance, MacMath makes a good save on Benny Feilhaber’s point blank shot but spills it in the box. Zusi lines up to slam home the rebound.

What does MacMath do? Does he attack the shooter? Does he guess low and go to ground? Does he dive left or right?

No. He turns away to avoid getting hit by the ball.

Nothing personal, kid, but if you’re afraid of the ball, don’t play goalkeeper in this league.

It’s not that MacMath should be expected make that save. Sure, it would be nice, but that’s a tough spot for any keeper. But you at least have to have to try.

On the second goal, Ray Gaddis lost his mark on Oriol Rosell. But MacMath has to attack Zusi’s free kick into the box with everything, not that half-hearted, unsure step that gets nowhere near the ball.

On the third goal, MacMath froze and watched Claudio Bieler’s shot go by him. (Don’t think Gaddis went unnoticed as the only defender without a mark, however.) MacMath did the same on an earlier shot that went barely a foot wide of goal.

The mental game

This was just one game, and Philadelphia’s back line deserves its share of blame for the goals.

But the patterns in MacMath’s play are the same as last year. He hesitates. He freezes. He gets caught halfway between staying on his line or attacking a ball. He doesn’t trust his instincts like he did during his impressive 2011 stretch.

MacMath’s problems seem mental, just as they were with Seitz. The Union’s commitment to youth development is admirable, but neither keeper was ready to start regularly in MLS when given the chance by Philadelphia. Each proved overwhelmed and seemingly lost his confidence.

If you watched D.C. United’s 22-year-old Bill Hamid aggressively make some huge first half saves Saturday against Houston, you’ve seen the difference mentality makes. Some worry about crushing MacMath’s confidence by benching him, but remember that Hamid had to earn back his starting job from Joe Willis last year.

Many goalkeepers peak late. Given time, the game slows down for them, as with NFL quarterbacks. They read the flow of a game more naturally. They eventually reach their comfort level.

If MacMath’s play and confidence don’t stabilize, manager John Hackworth should consider his options. There’s no reason to compound Peter Nowak’s mistake of dumping Faryd Mondragon and starting MacMath too soon. MacMath is still just 21. He could have a long career ahead of him. Some time on the bench or on loan in Harrisburg may help. Regardless, the best players have to play.

MacMath wouldn’t be the first athlete to take one step back so he could take two steps forward. Maybe you’ve heard of Tim Howard.


  1. JediLos117 says:

    For some reason, I feel the need to rewatch Union match once or twice…on Sunday during one of my rewatches, my mother says to me in passing, he looks scared when referencing our young MacMath…she wasnt wrong.

  2. The Black Hand says:

    Amen, Dan! We need a confident goalie to help steal a few games for us. I just don’t see a professional caliber goalkeeper, in MacMath. He had an entire season and showed little, to no, improvement. Hartman is my choice. Proven veteran, who still has something in the tank. He would provide an immediate upgrade, while the Union management pursues younger options for the future.

  3. Disagree.
    While MacMath needs to improve in several areas, to say a GK is all we need is soooooooooooooo wrong.
    So, so wrong. Our midfield needs cohesion, we need ot decide on strikers. We need to made a decision at LB. We need our CBs (whoever they will be) to learn to play together. We need players who can threaten wide and we need to get better marking on set pieces. We need to get better attacking on set pieces.
    We need better tactics from our coaches and better decisions when it comes to subs. We need players to step up for 90 minutes a game and not just a single pass.
    So yeah … while it’s fair to criticize MacMath it’s in no way fair to act like say the union are “one player” away from being a good team then name that player as GK.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      I wrote in the second line: “That player is a good, fearless goalkeeper. Whether his name is Zac MacMath, Chris Konopka, or something else remains to be seen.” Maybe it will be MacMath. A lot of people certainly hope so. He seems like a good kid with plenty of talent. But he has to play unafraid again. I think he can. But will he? And if so, when? Let’s wait and see. It will take more than just a fearless goalkeeper to win a title, but to be “a fairly good team” — as I wrote? Yep, a fearless goalkeeper will do it.

    • The Black Hand says:

      I agree with you Dan, the Union is far from complete. The midfield needs some real attention. I do think that the talent is within the club. Sitting Carroll and having Okugo backstop a four man (Diamond) would allow us better utilize our strengths. Marfan, Torres and Daniel (for now), would close out the middle.

      However, none of this will matter as long as we have a questionable (at best) keeper. I think that the club needs to bring in a reliable goalkeeper and we can build from there. MacMath is not at the level, he needs to be, to keep us competitive.

  4. I also noticed Gabe Farfan sort of nonchalantly jogging toward the box on that first goal. He’s a midfielder, sure, but the ball is in our box. Get in there!

  5. Also, the fact that you/we are able to assign partial blame on every goal to someone else without some major reaching doesn’t really lend credence to the whole “One away, and that one is a GK!”
    In fact, the blame for the other 3 goals include the word “mark” in some form. (Well, not the first one, but I would say Zusi being wide open to pound home the rebound indicates someone wasn’t marking him unless “no one” is a player on our team)
    So maybe it’s time for an article called “Time for fearless marking” next?

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    I was at the game and didn’t realize that MacMath did actually turn away from the ball on Zusi’s goal. Ridiculous. I don’t blame him completely for everything, but he does have to get better.

    • The Black Hand says:

      If you watch MacMath, throughout his pro career, he always falls away from the shot; making himself much smaller and providing the shooter with a larger target.

  7. Your GK is the one who is the most vocal,fearless and yes toughest ass kicker on the team. MacMath has to grow into that role. He needs to learn from a veteran keeper. The tough thing is that Hackworth coaches like MacMath goaltends. A veteran GK would have been all over Gaddis and the rest of this lousy marking team. I don’t let Sheannon Williams, Okugo, Parke, Carroll, off of the hook either. As soon as Le Toux scored SKC did what any team who had just been scored on do. They sent the ball deep and tested the soft underbelly of the Union defense and almost scored. Hackworth didn’t make the adjustment. MacMath didn’t charge is defenders and read them the riot act. Their set piece coverage was terrible. They all watched while SKC slowly and methodically took over the game.

    • The Black Hand says:

      True, that was one of the things that Mondragon did so well. He was a general back there.

    • Really? You want him to charge his defenders and read them the riot act? Sure thats how you lead. You screw up and then you have a keeper in your face? Imagine if all 10 players sprinted at MacMath and started getting in his face everytime he screwed up? Ultimately thats what you are saying Macmath should do. There’s a time, a place and a way to do all of that. Whether its at the half or in a manner that would actually encourage your teammates to be better.
      MacMath has been so timid since his knock in the head last year he plays scared. He’s far from intimidating in there. Rarely do you see keepers anymore give up their body on 1v1 because they are taught to shadow the offensive player instead of having some balls and laying out at their feet and getting a part of your body behind the ball. Get a veteran in there to hold down the fort until Zack Steffen is ready to take the team over. 2 very high draft picks wasted on 2 keepers.
      Defense on set plays have been horrible since the team began. No grit, no height…..
      Team defense and tactics were horrible abainst KC. Gaddis was abused on 2 goals and G. Farfan and Lahoud were jogging on the 1st goal. Bench them……….
      A great keeper will win you games when you do not deserve to win. I have a hard time seeing MacMath being that man. He’s a back-up

  8. But.. MacMath still worries me.. what makes a good goalkeeper is the ability to make the saves he should (that instills confidence in the team) and, occasionally, make a save he shouldn’t (that makes him a hero and inspires the rest of the team)… on every shot I cringe to see if MacMath will make another “rookie” mistake we’ll blame on his age or inexperience.. bah.. sh*t or get off the pot…
    And another thing, MacMath looks like he separates himself out from the rest of the team. Just seems to be by himself alot… looking scared… and he offers NO direction to his back line or his team…
    I was fortunate to be at the final preseason game at Disney against DC United… in such a intimate venue Bill Hamid (age 23) was overpoweringly vocal, encouraging and directing teammates and a being a “presence”, didn’t hear a peep from MacMath..
    sigh… I mean I want MacMath to succeed.. but I’m tired of waiting to see even glimpses of the “to be”…
    Faryd was slow and let in his share of goals I think were savable, but he COMMANDED the box and inspired the team…
    enough ranting… we are sloooow close, and I hate to think that air will be let out any confidence and momentum b/c of soft goals….

  9. I can’t agree more. Was watching with my son, who is a goalkeeper, and he said on the first goal it looked like MacMath ducked. On the 2nd goal he asked why he didn’t punch it out. Finally on the 3rd goal he asked why he didn’t at least dive to his right.

    Not bad analysis from a 13 year old.

  10. Is Nick Noble still at Harrisburg? What about him?

    • The Black Hand says:

      Hartman would be my pick. He will cost a little bit, but it would be a small price to pay for the security he brings to goal.

  11. The criticism of MacMath is definitely warranted on goals 2 & 3 as well as any of his other flaws that were pointed out above (poor positioning, lack of vocal leadership,etc). All valid criticisms.

    However, on that first goal, it was such a huge defensive breakdown between Williams getting caught up field, Okugo and Carroll failing to win the ball/hold up Convey on the wing to the numerous midfielders that didn’t track back. MacMath came up of his net to stop the initial shot which was low & hard (i.e. – tough to punch)which put him back on his heels. When he recovered his balance, he started to come out on Zusi, but the 2nd shot was taken pretty quickly. For all of the people giving him grief for turning his head, that happens to most keepers in that type of situation. It’s a natural reaction which you can see from GK’s in leagues all around the world.

    Let’s stop trying to make it more than it was. The entire team failed on that goal, not just MacMath.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Fair critique. I’ve done it myself when playing goalkeeper (more than once, sadly). Always felt absolutely miserable afterward.

  12. His defense was partially culpable for all of the goals. I don’t think those problems will last though. These guys are still working some things out. I’m not jumping the gun, this is week one. With a tighter back line I think Zac gains a degree of confidence. I wouldn’t even hold him responsible on the third. Should he have tried to get down, if he saw the shot clearly yes, but it came through some serious traffic and he probably couldn’t have saved it. If he can’t save it you can’t really hold him responsible. He got caught in no mans land on the second goal. Ray absolutely lost Rosell and that ball was whipped in, but as a Keeper you have to get to the ball or stay at home. To me that was the only mistake of the highest order. And sure he could have scrambled out faster on the first, but he was off balance after the save.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Good points!

    • I still have to think we lose out with him not commanding the area like Mondragon used to. Perhaps Parke can grow into a more vocal leader back there, but the best keepers, as LCBline says above, are arse-kickers. Probably one reason keeprs get better with age. McMath is so young that he could sit for seven or eight years and still have a nice career.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I think that Parke isgoing to be fantastic, for us. His size and ability were lacking in previous Union back lines. Nothing against Valdez, but we did get destroyed through the air. I think that Parke will surpass Valdez’ offerings, fairly quickly.

  13. First goal – fault lies with Sheannon and BC -terrible defending from both. BC gets pulled out wide to help Sheannon and neither of them run with Feilhaber leaving him embarassingly open in the box. The rest is just aftermath.

  14. Maybe “fearless” goalkeeper is the wrong word. Maybe we need a “feared” goalkeeper. It would certainly solve some of our free kick defending if the other team’s box players knew there was a body ready to come out and knock them out of the game. The opponents have no fear in our box anymore. Califf isn’t going to clothesline them, valdes isn’t going to give them shove, and mondragon isn’t going to eat their soul.

    We need a FEARED goalkeeper.

  15. The Black Hand says:

    Watch Carroll feign a challenge on Convey, allowing the player to make the cross. He needs to challenge fully and take a piece of the player, if not the ball. Far too timid of a player, Carroll is. Convey never should have been able to get to that ball untouched.

  16. Scottymac says:

    I think anytime Daniel and Lahoud start, we’re more than one player away from being good.

    Ever since he got concussed, MacMath has been hesitant to get his nose in there.

    We still need to link our midfield play to our strikers or it doesn’t matter. We don’t score particularly well and we aren’t looking like a team that will keep many clean sheets. As for Garfan, I hate to sound overly critical, but I just feel like since Harvey was dealt we’ve never been the same there. We can hate on the one footed Mapp, but I felt there was more chance something positive would happen with him on wing than Keon. Paunstar at CAM was > Adu/Torres/Marfan in that role. I’d be willing to bet that’s true even retired. Until we fix that, we will be too easy to defend. Expect to be on the wrong end of more 0-2;1-3 losses.

  17. I have to dissent on this post, Dan. Not to say that I am convinced that Zac is superawesome and we should never consider anyone else — but to criticize him following this match seems unwarranted.

    The whole team really dominated KC for 40 minutes, and then the whole damn team let down after. Zac’s contribution to this loss was modest at best. I would hold him responsible for goal #2, when he put himself in a lousy position. But even that one involved Gaddis totally losing his mark. The other goals were clearly defensive breakdowns (analyzed above by others). The offense was stymied by Lahoud’s lousy passing, Carroll’s inability to play the ball forward, and the presence of only a single striker until late in the second half. And looking all of those latter points, the true goat for this defeat is Hackworth.

    I think there are people who have been down on Zac, and therefore can’t wait for any opportunity to bash him. I just think we should withhold the withering criticism until it’s truly deserved, and even if he didn’t play terrifically, this match doesn’t qualify.

    • The Black Hand says:

      I have been down on him. Not because I don’t like him (I’m sure he is a great guy), but because he has not shown that he can handle this level of play. Goalkeeper is a tough position. It can make or break a club. At this point, MacMath has to be held accountable (without all of the excuse making). Very little progress has been made. He is,simply, not there yet.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Fair points. While I think MacMath is a key part, he’s not the only player that was outplayed Saturday. I was highlighting one (very key) piece who, unlike other Union players, has not yet gone to the bench for performance over the past year.

      Hopefully my post doesn’t come across as bashing but rather reasoned, fair critique (even if someone disagrees with it). Because certainly, there will always be those sorts who want to just bash individuals (Carroll, Hackworth, Le Toux, Lahoud, etc.), and that’s never the intent on our part. He seems like a good, talented kid who everyone would like to see succeed.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I don’t know if people want to bash individuals, per se. Much of what has been said of MacMath, Carroll, LeToux, etc…, has been completely warranted and is a fair critique based on their play. In certain instances, ie: Carroll and MacMath, far too many excuses have been made, to shield said criticisms. There is nothing wrong with having a real, sometimes sobering, look at the club. Granted, there are many negatives right now but what would you expect? This club is far from competitive and for very step forward, two steps are being taken back.

  18. McMohansky says:

    Spot on article. Couldn’t agree more when you say “If you put Jimmy Nielsen in Philadelphia’s net and MacMath in Kansas City’s, the Union win that game.”
    There are always going to be arguments and complaints about who should start over whom and what the substitutions should be when, but if the team doesn’t have a keeper they have confidence in, its just rearranging the deck chairs on a listless ship.

    Personally, it was much more fun sitting in section 117 watching the Dragon in front of me. That is not to say MacMath won’t be a better goalkeeper in the future (I hope near future), but his lack of leadership and fearlessness are cringe-worthy.

  19. I totally agree with Dan. A friend & I have an even bigger issue with MacMath. The keeper is the “quarterback” of the defense. I do not see MacMath taking command of his players to make sure they are marking correctly, pointing out opposing runs or giving his teamates crap for not marking someone on set pieces. THAT wwas what Mondragon did and THAT is why our defense was so good in 2011. We had fewer defensive breakdowns when he was in goal. Cody Cropper seems to be the total opposite of MacMath.

    • Absolutely!!!! A great commands does his yelling and communicating to organize the defense, and prevent situations from happening! I am reading and seeing far to many keepers do their bitching and getting in teammates faces after a goal……might actually help if you help your cause by doing some direction.
      One of the Pillars of Goalkeeping is “communication”. You do it well and it cuts your job down dramatically because you minimize the opponents chances.

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