A View from Afar

The Mbolhi mess: Union roster mismanagement returns

Photo: Kevin Kinkead

It seems like a situation only Philadelphia Union would put themselves in.

You have two good, young goalkeepers, and you need help at left back and left midfield.

Naturally, your solution is to sign another goalkeeper. So much for logic.

Things are playing out predictably since Rais Mbolhi’s signing three weeks ago. Zac MacMath’s overtime heroics led the Union to their first ever cup final. Andre Blake impressed yet again in a surprise start against Houston. Meanwhile, Mbolhi has yet to play for the Union for reasons not entirely clear.

When Mbolhi finally plays his first Union match — which we’re told will happen, some day — it will be with a big cloud of “WTF?” hanging over his head. Mbolhi has missed the three games since his acquisition was announced, and he will likely miss five of the Union’s remaining 11 games while on international duty with Algeria during Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. As if his signing wasn’t disruptive enough, Mbolhi is likely to be unavailable when he may be needed the most.

This is what happens when a team makes a major signing in the absence of a (non-interim) manager with the authority to make the decision. The Union can practically fill an entire lineup with starting quality goalkeepers, right backs and defensive midfielders, but they don’t have a natural left back or left midfielder worthy of the first 11.

“I’m personally very excited because now we have three of the best goalkeepers in Major League Soccer, in my opinion,” Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz famously said after the signing.

Too bad you only play one at a time, unless the Union plan to try something like this:

Altitude Sports showed this three-goalkeeper set as the Colorado Rapids' formation during a game last year. Could it work for the Union?

Altitude Sports showed this three-goalkeeper set as the Colorado Rapids’ formation during a game last year. Could it work for the Union?

Something tells me interim manager Jim Curtin knows better — and was not fully on board with this move when it was finalized. But he has minimal decision-making authority in this matter as an interim manager.

A good move — six months ago, or in a vacuum

This isn’t to imply the football guys didn’t start the conversation with Mbolhi. Au contraire! During Mbolhi’s introductory press conference July 30, Mbolhi said “it’s been six or seven months that I’ve been calling the Union.” 

That clarified what the Union’s plan probably was when they drafted Blake with the first pick in January’s amateur draft. The Union were rebooting the goalkeeper position, giving up on MacMath, picking another talented young goalkeeper in Blake, and seeking a quality veteran under whom Blake would apprentice.

That was a justifiable move — in January. After Peter Nowak prematurely jettisoned Faryd Mondragon and inserted MacMath into the lineup in 2012, MacMath had yet to prove himself as a quality MLS starter. No surprise: Few 21-year-old goalkeepers do.

Everyone knew the Union needed to improve the position — including MacMath, apparently. So he did.

MacMath has stepped up to become one of the Union’s best players this season, stopping penalty kicks at a rate that would make Nick Rimando envious. Has he been perfect? No. Has he been good? Undoubtedly.

A manager with authority would have recognized that MacMath was justifying his drafting and changed the plan accordingly.

But the Union pressed ahead. It makes you wonder if Drew Brees is a soccer fan.

Roster mismanagement: Could this have been done better?

Taken by itself, in a vacuum, the Mbolhi signing is a good one. His impressive displays in the last two World Cups — particularly against Germany this year — confirm this guy can play. No, his professional career hasn’t been particularly distinguished. Mbolhi has played primarily in the Bulgarian league– not exactly Europe’s best or most corruption-free — without settling anywhere. Of course, would you want to plant roots in Bulgaria’s league? Me neither.

The Union just didn’t need Mbolhi given their current roster holes and the amount of salary budget space they likely have. MLS roster rules and a tight salary budget restrict what a team can do overall. Mbolhi’s salary isn’t yet public knowledge, but it’s probably between $200,000 and $325,000, compared to MacMath’s $120,000.

That money would have been better spent on a good left back or left winger.

The Union may have improved the goalkeeper position, but that spot probably would have improved anyway due to MacMath’s continued progression.

Instead, MacMath will probably depart in the offseason for far less than he’s worth, now that every team in the league knows the Union have too many goalkeepers collecting starter-level salaries. MacMath could even leave in the expansion draft for nothing. Orlando and NYC FC are surely paying attention.

Is it possible the Union tried to trade MacMath before the Mbolhi signing but found no takers at a decent exchange rate? Sure.

Is it equally possible the Union chose not to trade MacMath yet due to Mbolhi’s anticipated absences for international duty? Absolutely.

Could the Union have waited till the offseason to sign Mbolhi? Probably not, because he was reportedly out of contract after the expiration of his 3.5-year deal with Krylia Sovetov, the Russian side that held his rights but loaned him out all over Europe. They had to sign him now, unless Mbolhi fancied the idea of being without a club team for six months.

Still, there had to be a better way than this.

Because now you’re left with three talented goalkeepers, no talented left-sided players, and a regrettable Sakiewicz quote that encapsulates the dysfunction endemic within the Union organization. Even when the Union get it right, they still somehow get it wrong.


  1. I couldn’t agree more with this. People can argue the signing was good and their argument gas it’s merits but to me it is redundancy when your first keeper has shown his quality and your 2nd keeper is the first pick in the draft.

  2. Bob the Used Car Salesman. says:

    The sad thing is that Corey Ashe is sitting there in Houston collecting dust. Surely something could be done to get him in Philly.

  3. Isn’t it a bit premature to call this signing a mistake until we A) see what we can get for MacMath; and B) See M’Bolhi play?

    I’m not saying that your analysis is wrong — I’m just saying that the story hasn’t played out yet. I suspect part of the issue is that Sackewicz saw an opportunity to get a guy who could possibly be a world-class keeper at a relative bargain of a price. Also, if there are multiple teams who are interested in MacMath — and there likely will be — competition will drive up the trade price. I’d withhold judgement a few more months — as in, into the off-season.

    • i agree with this. the biggest thing to realize here is that the acquisition of mbohli and the non acquisition of a good left back or left winger are two totally different things. i am really mad that we haven’t had a quality left sided player in a couple seasons and that will remain an issue until they deal with it but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go for other players if the opportunity arises.
      as far as them not getting a fair value for macmath when he gets traded- that is yet to be seen. they might not be in a great bargaining position but that doesn’t mean it is a foregone conclusion that they won’t be able to get anything good for him

    • no, it is not. we already have two good goalies. when a team’s long range planning comes down to “we collect good players” without regard to how the rest of the roster shapes up or out, and the team always has to wait to see how things play out, its not long range planning, its ad hoc, knee jerk, make a splash thinking at its finest. Sak’s a genius and probably needs a walker, a neck brace, a full time chiropractor and a full time barista for his chiropractor (in addition to his own barista) to handle all of this “planning”. We just aren’t smart enough to see it, but trust him, it will work out (just like Amaro). Most can see, however, that it would be nice to have a competent left back.

      • +1

        I have no confidence that the front office has any long term plan.

      • Do you think that Cherkin will replace that latin motto at the end of the 90th Min with “we collect good players”? It’s kinda catchy.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        “Colligimus Bonum Histriones”
        Sorry, I couldn’t help it… haha

      • No. You don’t have two good goalies. MacMath isn’t good enough. If you have to pretty good goalkeepers, neither who are good enough to lead you to a title… you have nothing. Sorry…. you have nothing. If you want to be a real contender… stop handicapping MacMath’s play by inserting his age and acquire a player who is capable of doing the job. MacMath is not capable. Mbolhi more than likely is. MacMath commands respect from nobody.

      • Are you kidding? Did you even watch the open cup semi final? MacMath played a huge part in winning us that game and is leading us to a title. Mbolhi hasn’t done anything for this club while our supposed back up and third stringer have been great. Maybe you should have tried actually watching a few games this season. Seriously, if you’re going to constantly hate on our players than just get off this site. It gets annoying when the same person leaves the same rude opinion on almost everyone’s comments.

      • You couldn’t be more wrong. At 23 years of age, MacMath has matured far faster than most GKs. He has been called up to numerous Men’s National Team U23 and U20 tournaments, has trained with Everton multiple times on invite from the EPL club, and is one of the top GKs in MLS. He’s only going to get better. Mbolhi is an excellent keeper as well, but to say that MacMath is not capable of carrying the Union is completely off-base and incorrect.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I agree completely. However, this whole thing turns into a debacle if they don’t get something of need in return. That will determine if this was a good move.

    • Fair points, absolutely. To repeat, in and of itself — i.e. based on what Mbolhi can do on the field — it’s likely a good acquisition.
      But we’re talking overall roster management here. There’s no natural starting left back or left winger, and they could have spent the money on that. Maybe they’ll try to trade for Corey Ashe, but Houston doesn’t need a starting goalkeeper, defensive midfielder or right back, and that’s what the Union have to offer. (Unless there’s allocation money or a draft pick involved.)

      • we will get nothing for MacMath because nobody wants MacMath. Everyone knows that MacMath is not a top level keeper in MLS. He is a serviceable back up. That is all he is.

      • assuming what you say is true, then you strengthen the argument that the FO is poorly managing the roster as the appropriate decision would have been to move MacMath before everyone knew that the FO didn’t think he was good enough. I disagree with your view of MacMath – building a team isn’t picking a fantasy side. You actually need a plan. Since M’Bolhi hasn’t even played yet (why? how?) hard to actually assess whether he is worth it, which is kinda the screaming obvious mismanagement point. and he’ll miss quite a few games this fall. FO could have waited until the offseason, as it appears he very much wanted to come here (except that he cannot yet).

      • Maybe a year ago. Watch some games in 2014. Times change. Players change.

      • The counterargument is that if you can acquire a skilled player at a relative bargain price, you grab him, because even if you have a surplus, you can turn that surplus into value at other positions.

        To make this concrete, let’s pretend that acquiring a good left winger would cost the Union $300K. If you can get M’Bolhi for $250K, and trade MacMath for a good winger, then you’ve upgraded 2 positions AND saved yourself $50K. Or, maybe there’s a winger that a team wouldn’t be terribly happy to part with, but they’ll do it to get a GK because they really need one. With his recent improvement in form, wouldn’t it be great to see Justin Mapp back in a Union kit? (I doubt Montreal would give him up, but they do need a keeper.)

        So will this happen?? I dunno, but as I said, I’m withholding judgment for a little while.

  4. This puzzling the more I think about it. I understood drafting Blake since he was better than the Union had as a backup. Signing M’bolhi, while nice on paper, is a facepalm in reality. If the Union get rid of MacMath they’ll have two international GK who attend their nations camps throughout the year. So no matter what we’ll need a US GK just have for when they are playing for their national teams. Honestly I would loan out Blake and keep MacMath as backup. It sucks for him but he is a known quantity. Also I would let Blake goin the expansion draft. Steffen is coming up through the ranks and will be an excellent GK in the future.

    • Blake can’t go in the expansion draft. He’s GA. If MacMath isn’t traded first, he’ll be the one taken in the draft. This is the determining factor in why it was a crap move to sign M’Bolhi. Very few teams want MacMath as a starter, and the teams that would take him as a backup won’t want him because he’ll be taken in the draft. MacMath’s trade value has plummeted due to this fact.

      • Unfortunately we have too many other players I’d let go in the draft. Sounds stupid but I’d protect all three GK’s. MacMath has played well given the lineups that he played behind.He is a much better keeper since 2012 and he is still young.

      • oh please. are we still qualifying macmath’s terrible play with *he is still young. MacMath is garbage. He is not a leader. He does not organize his defense. He does not control his box. He is worthless. If you’re not good enough as a keeper… you’re worthless.

      • NOBODY wants MacMath as a starter… is more like it. The only fanbase that would have it is Philly because they’re emotional saps with low standards as long as they like a player.

      • god damn, did macmath’s dog poop on your front stoop or something?

  5. Sell MacMath to English Champions League club to pay for M’Bohli& loan Blake. Ironically we will then need a backup goalie. The most discouraging words from Sak that day are that he is “absolutely in no rush to hire a manager.” You can’t plan a roster around the vision of your as yet unknown future managet.

  6. The Realist Brian says:

    This is an obvious case of Sak being a complete shithead with his personnel moves. For those of you that didn’t know, Sak was a goalkeeper, and this move reeks of “I know better.”
    The lack of awareness that this wasn’t the area of need shows how disconnected he is to the teams true needs. We didn’t need a goalkeeper, he goes out and gets one? And an expensive one at that? Stupid, stupid move. Money would have been more wisely spent on a true left back (Beasley anyone?) or a stud striker.
    If it is to make a trade, he should have made the trade and eliminated one of the two goalies from causing the players from having ill will to the team. Locker room cancers are not easy to cure. When it is being caused by an imbecile like Sak, it is impossible to cure.
    If he is able to pull off a stunning trade, I will be the first to eat crow. But he has lost a ton of leverage by not making the move before M’bohli was signed.

  7. Totally agree with Dan’s view that getting M’bellish was a bad idea, especially if he won’t be playing half the games. The U has much greater needs. And remember the U traded up to get Blake, who now seems destined to be a long-term back-up.

    Will M’bellish play the US Open final over Mcmath?

  8. Dan may I ask as to why you failed to mention M’Bolhi’s Paris car accident as to one of the reasons for his lack of playing time?

  9. The Chopper says:

    The Union may have pressing needs at left back, but that doesn’t mean a team doesn’t upgrade other positions when the right opportunity comes along. They have decided that Zach MacMath is not the long term goal keeper for this club. Andre Blame may have promise, but is not ready and what he needs to learn he will not learn from watching MacMath.

    So for the long term, beyond this season, this signing still makes some sense. We shouldn’t look at it through a short term lens,

  10. The Chopper says:

    The long term plan includes having a world class goal keeper. And now you have one.

    • and the rest of the plan? No one denies M’Bolhi played well in a few World Cup games or that he is likely an upgrade – whether that constitutes “world class” when he cannot catch on in a major European league despite having had a decent 2010 WC and a French/EU passport remains an open question. To keep raising arguments such as “but M’Bolhi is good/better/did well in the World Cup/world class” still misses the point. Amaro got a pass for years because he was around when a Gillick-built (or even Ed Wade-built) team won – his lack of a long term plan/clue is now apparent. What success has Sak been around for to merit such leniency? why not Beasley instead? was Houston really more attractive? could it be that with Dom Kinnear you know what to expect long term?

    • What makes M’bolhi a world class keeper? Two good games in the WC? He can’t even stick in the Bulgarian League (which is far weaker than MLS). He’s been loaned out 5-6 times over the last 4 seasons…twice in Russia (couldn’t make 1st team either time), once in France’s 2nd division (got relegated to 3rd division), and three times to CSKA Sofia (didn’t stick there either last time). None of these leagues are anywhere near the quality and depth of MLS. He hasn’t stuck with a team as the starter for more than a handful of games since 2010. Red flag maybe??

      • Philly Cheese says:

        Agree that a couple of good games in World Cup do not automatically translate into the kind of salary cap money being spent and confusion on the team that the M’bolhi signing is causing. If Sak had said “we have three of the best defenders or midfielders, or forwards….that would have at least shown some logic.

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