Union acquire goalkeeper Oka Nikolov

NOTE: This post has been updated to add comments from Union manager John Hackworth’s news conference on Wednesday afternoon.

Philadelphia Union have acquired 39-year old-former Bundesliga goalkeeper Oka Nikolov, according to a news release from the club.

Nikolov becomes the third goalkeeper on the Union roster, joining starter Zac MacMath and backup Chris Konopka. He will become eligible to play for the Union when the summer transfer window opens for MLS on July 9.

“We’re excited to have a player with Nikolov’s experience and leadership join our team,” Union manager John Hackworth said in a news release. “We think he will provide excellent depth and mentorship to our young goalkeepers.”

During a news conference Wednesday, Hackworth characterized Nikolov someone who would not join the team as an immediate starter but rather have a role to play as a backup and mentor. That said, Nikolov would compete for playing time, just like any other Union player, Hackworth said. Nikolov’s willingness to accept that role, character, experience, and on-field performance convinced the Union to sign him as a free agent, Hackworth said.

The Union knew as far back as February that they planned to sign Nikolov and kept only two goalkeepers on the roster as a result, Hackworth said.

The Union will be only Nikolov’s second team in a career that began in 1994, most of which was spent in Germany’s top flight. After coming through the Eintracht Frankfurt youth system, Nikolov remained a faithful servant to the club, remaining with them for the next 20 years until today’s transfer to the Union. He played 414 matches for Frankfurt, including 229 in the Bundesliga, and also earned five caps for the Macedonian national team.

In recent years, he has played mostly as a backup, but he stepped in for injured starter Kevin Trapp to start eight games and help lead his club to the Euro League this year. He saved 23 of the 32 shots he faced this past season.

The decision to leave Frankfurt appears to have been Nikolov’s. Frankfurt released him Tuesday from a one-year contract so that he could end his career in the United States. He appears to have been the longest tenured player with any Bundesliga club.

“Eintracht are my one and only,” Nikolov said in a news release from the Bundesliga. “I had an absolutely incredible time with this fantastic team and I would like to thank both the club and the fans. However, throughout my career an opportunity to move to America and expand my horizons was always a dream of mine and one which I hope to fulfill now.”


  1. Oh nice, I can’t wait to see this 39 year old random give up goals at the fault of a poorly constructed back line instead of MacMath.
    This is going to make all the difference in our thrilling race to 6th place.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      To be fair, Faryd Mondragon was an old nobody with a questionable back line, too, but his influence improved the defense greatly. Fingers crossed this guy can be similarly influential.

      • Mondragon was not a nobody. He had a distinguished career in Europe and for his national team and was proabably the most influential player on a team that made the playoffs……

    • What a lack of foresight. A keeper in the Bundesliga for 20 years surely has enough experience to mentor a physically talented young goalkeeper who struggles with mental mistakes. This isn’t about Nikolov, it’s about MacMath. He will be pushed and mentored.

      • kingkowboys says:

        This is the reason. He is here to player/coach/mentor. In a bad situation he might actually play. This guy expressed interest in coming to the US so the U struck a deal to bring him in for his experience. I hope they were upfront about his role with the team.

      • But I was here!

        Seriously, this is a smart move. mentorship for MacMath and, in the event of an injury, real depth.

        Remember, the GK coach is now functioning as a full fledged #2 coach. This provides cover for him too.

    • EllisCarver says:

      The biggest thing this back line lacks is leadership and communication. A veteran goalkeeper like Nikolov might be well-equipped to bring that to the table. This is a good move.

    • Our biggest problem with defense is nobody is organizing the back line. The only person who did it was Baky Saoumare and when he did we had one of the better Defensive games of the season.

      Case in point Baky would yell at Gaddis and tall him to get into position where Jeff Parke would say screw it run over to to Gaddis’ position to defens and the you would have both Gaddis and Parke out of position. If NEWGUY! lays down the law back there we can probably see some instant dividends.

  2. Ah this move. What I suspect is that he will be a coach/mentor/back-up in this order. The Union seem loathe to hire coaches and seem to believe in getting veterans who are can acts as default coaches. (This indicates to me that the Union are cash poor as an organization and their cash problems are not salary cap problems)

    If and I mean IF he gets on the field we should see an immediate improvement if he has any ability to organize the back line into something more than a JV team.

    In short he is
    (1.) a good signing
    (2.)not a long term solution(obviously)
    (3.) The Macedonian flag is pretty badass so it should look good in the river end
    (4.) Will only help the Union(in the short term) on the field if he is on the field (something that we will see about.)
    (5.) I refuse to take this team seriously until they have a viable Left Back.

    • Macedonia flag IS bad ass.

    • Loathe to hire coaches? They hired 1 in the offseason (Jim Curtin) and officially promoted Burke to a bigger role. The issue is that their coaches do too much. Vartughian, who is supposed to be the goalkeeper coach, is also the technical director, and it’s likely he can’t do both jobs equally well, since both entail quite a bit of work.

  3. Well, on paper at least, this could tick the box of “experienced veteran keeper to push/tutor MacMath” that this team has needed all season. Nice to see the team finally addressing a need, though there’s quite a ways to go in that department.

  4. The Chopper says:

    Solid move. If nothing else, I give Hackworth credit for showing that patience is a virtue. The club wanted to sign a player like this in the off season, but could not find a fit that met their limited budget. Now they have.

    Yes, they need a left back! But when your money is tight, the fit has to be right. You can’t afford to screw up your acquisitions. Hopefully he finds the right answer at left back soon.

    It’s not easy to be patient when your team is struggling and your supporters are grumbling. Especially for a first time MLS manager. Hack had a roster full of holes, but has the team in contention for the playoffs and more importantly seems to be positioning the roster to have some flexibility to make room for better upgrades next season.

    Sure we can argue about his lineups and tactics, they drive me nuts too. But in the end, considering his club’s limitations , he seems to be managing well.

    • Jaap Stam says:

      @The Chopper “Positioning the roster to have some flexibility to make room for better upgrades NEXT SEASON????????” C’mon man, get real! You can expect next year to be just like this year, and last year. There are no stud players on the way. In fact, we are more likely to be sellers than buyers. The truth hurts (me.)

  5. Well, I guess we should be happy about this move, but hopefully we’re not paying him too much as we could have had Kevin Hartman do this same job for $45k per year.

    • The Chopper says:

      I am guessing the club was concerned that Hartman would not handle the role of sitting and mentoring a young keeper when in the present Hartman is the superior player . The club for better or worse has made a huge investment in MacMath, so they were looking for the right personality as much as the right talent.

      • Agree with you that it has to fit personality wise, but isn’t that the role that Hartman is now playing for NY? Also, I think most people feel that Hartman is a better player than Robles and Meara so I’m not following your logic about Hartman not being able to handle that teacher/mentor role.

  6. This move in and of itself is fine, maybe even good. BUT, he must play. He cannot ONLY sit on the bench and give advice.
    Also, if this is our “outside signing to help with the second half” then I will be extremely upset. We better not pay him enough that we can’t sign anyone else.

  7. The Black Hand says:

    Better late than never. We need a veteran keeper. I suspect that MacMath will stay in goal, but the competition can only help matters and the tutelage will be welcomed.

  8. Good pickup assuming the Union aren’t paying him much. This is a step in the right direction, but upgrades must be made to LB and LM. Hopefully, there’s enough cap space after this deal.

  9. I like that the guy is 39 years old, because it sends the right message to Zac. If Zac makes serious mistakes going forward, he can be benched, and we have a veteran with a pedigree to potentially lead the team to the playoffs (fingers crossed). But his age means that they are not abandoning MacMath for the future, which is good for his confidence.

    At the same time, the presence of a veteran may push Zac to sharpen up a little. Hackworth has said many times that he feels that intra-squad competition is needed to bring out the best in players. Now Zac has some. Plus the availability to mentorship, as everyone else has noted.

    Also, I really like the fact that this guy has been with the same club for 20 years. Clearly he must have been both a valuable player and a good guy in the locker room or he would never have had such a long tenure with a Bundesliga 1 side.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      +1. Good points. Well said.

    • The Black Hand says:

      We are over-coddling Zac MacMath.

      • Who’s we? He is pretty much called out for every goal and never really gets any praise.
        Besides me trying to balance the scale a bit I can’t even think of anyone who doesn’t seem like they want to launch him back to Harrisburg for 2-3 years.

      • I don’t know about you but I personally took away his favorite oxen, Bessie and Jebediah. Now he must bear the yoke himself and plow all 27 fields using only only sweat, moxie and gumption.

        I am sure by not mollycoddling this lad with beasts of burden I am sure we will whip the Ginger out of this lad and turn him into the vigorous keeper we all know he can be.

      • What…

      • Southside Johnny says:

        I believe Zac needs some a little bit of time out, too. Sieve! , that must be some badass stuff…

      • I’m gonna go with what sieve said

  10. Axel Neubauer says:

    I am a Frankfurt fan and I am sad to see Oka leave. I can’t count the number of times the club presented a “new #1” the beginning of the season… and in the end it was Oka who played. Our current goal keeper Kevin Trapp is young and extremely talented and for the first time Oka actually did not play…. until Kevin broke his hand during a national team photo shoot (yes, I am serious) and Oka continued where he had left off: being an awesome keeper. You guys will like him!

  11. I think it’s a good signing. If he doesn’t play at least he pushes Zach and mentors him. Because let’s be honest, konopka was never going to play if he deserved it or not he was a play if Zach is hurt and can’t play other wise.

  12. Let the guy play! Bone off this “pushes mcmath” stuff. They are paying for him so let him play. This cant be another signing to fit on the bench.

  13. Frankfurt fans really seemed to like the guy

  14. My German connections (by which I mean people who watch the Bundesliga — nothing “insider”) think very highly of this guy, and claimed he’s much better than Mondragon was. We shall see.

  15. Jaap Stam says:

    I hope he plays, but Coach Hack’s comments make it seem like he’s more of a GK coach. I’m anticipating the usual frustrations as we struggle but our coach refuses to alter his starting eleven. My guess is he sits for at least a month before even being considered. That’s how Hack rolls. Personally I’d put him in as soon as he gets here.

  16. Eintracht Frankfurt as well.
    As you all might have already read, Nikolov played 22 years for the SGE.
    During his stay for over two decades he faced a lot of good teams multiple teams (Bayern München, Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke04, etc.)
    With the knowledge of the Bundesliga having a fairly high standard and Nikolov being comparatively old, he sure did a hell of a job. Our 1st choice, GK Kevin Trapp, was ranked best GK in the last season with an average of 2,4 (1 being the best, 6 the worst) in 26 games, whereas Nikolov still scored a 3,13 in the remaining 8 games (although Eintracht Frankfurt was rather bad in in the 2nd half of the season).
    Furthermore he’s a real pro when it comes to penalties.
    With all that being said: you signed a/the legend in terms of loyalty and an overall good keeper. So there is absolutely no worry, if he has to replace Zac. 🙂


    • Furthermore the comments on articles on various american sites by many Eintracht Frankfurt fans are proof for a job very well done 🙂

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