Analysis / Offseason Issues

Offseason issues: Goalkeeping

Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Philadelphia Union unsuccessfully tried to move Zac MacMath this summer, sources told me some time ago.

That was before the July 30 signing of Rais Mbolhi, the Algerian international who enjoyed a phenomenal World Cup and reportedly attracted interest from big clubs such as Porto, Galatasaray, and Trabzonspor.

MacMath could not be moved, apparently because there were no suitors. Mbolhi came in, played just four games, and committed an error that seriously damaged Philadelphia’s playoff chances.

Now you enter an offseason with three goalkeepers on your roster — the fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft, the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, and the starter for one of Africa’s best national teams.

We play other sports where we can use our hands

One thing American soccer is good at is developing excellent goalkeepers. Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, Kasey Keller, and Brad Guzan are some of the most well known American exports over the past two decades. MLS rarely imports foreign goalkeepers. The most sought after import is the South American playmaker, a creative No. 10 who possesses the attacking ability that most kids in the U.S. simply do not grasp.

That’s why it was intriguing to see the Union spend $240,000 and an international slot on a foreign goalkeeper.

Photo by Earl Gardner

Zac MacMath finished the season with a relatively poor goals against average (1.55) and save percentage (62), but he spent the first half of the year playing in front of a makeshift defense that included converted forward Aaron Wheeler. MacMath had three penalty saves and generally did not make any game-changing mistakes in net. Photo: Earl Gardner.

The only foreign keepers that start for MLS teams are Jaime Penedo (Panama), David Ousted (Denmark), Donovan Ricketts (Jamaica), and Raul Fernandez (Peru). Stefan Frei is more American than Swiss, and the rest of the starting goalkeepers around the league were born and raised here. It’s very unique that Philadelphia has two foreign goalies on the roster.

Give Nick Sakiewicz credit though. Attracting a player of Mbolhi’s stature and recognition was a big success for a young franchise like the Union.

But the chase is often better than the catch, and the non-necessity of signing a goalkeeper overshadowed the front office’s successful efforts to lure him away from those bigger clubs. Andre Blake’s salary does not count against the cap because of his Generation adidas status, but there is a combined $360,000 tied up in MacMath and Mbolhi, occupying around 10 percent of the salary cap.

Here are some points to consider:

  • Andre Blake is older than Zac MacMath.

Andre Blake was born in November, 1990. Zac MacMath was born in August, 1991. The Union traded up to draft a goalkeeper who was older than their more experienced current goalkeeper.

Can you can follow that?

Drafting Blake seemed like a good move at the time, but without a way to get him minutes or move MacMath, the selection looks like a flop, especially considering that Steve Birnbaum and Tesho Akindele were on the board.

  • Andre Blake will be leaving for international duty with Jamaica.

Blake got a few call-ups this season, and he’ll only be getting more.

  • Rais Mbolhi will be leaving for international duty with Algeria.

The 2015 Africa Cup of Nations takes place in Morocco from Jan. 17 to Feb. 8, unless the West African Ebola outbreak forces its cancellation. Mbolhi will miss the first part of training camp, which isn’t that big of a deal. Jeff Parke missed almost the entirety of the 2013 preseason. But as Algeria’s No. 1, Mbolhi will likely be called up for every FIFA international date throughout the season, similar to what you saw this autumn.

Is Orlando looking for another goalkeeper?

Popular opinion seems to be that MacMath will be unprotected in the expansion draft. Many thought he would be a prime target for Orlando City or even NYC FC. However, Orlando snagged Tally Hall in a trade with Houston, so it looks like he might be the starter there.

Then there was an article on that suggested Orlando might still be looking for another goalkeeper for their expansion season.

MacMath is a Florida native, so it would probably make sense for him to end up there. Philadelphia made a significant investment in Mbolhi, so it’s hard to see MacMath winning the starting job unless Mbolhi struggles out of the gates in 2015.

Scenarios and solutions

1. Keep MacMath, Mbolhi and Blake.

This would be a mess. Mbolhi would be the starter, leave for international duty, and MacMath would get his share of starts as a backup. Blake would struggle for games unless a loan deal could be arranged.

2. Move MacMath, keep Mbolhi and Blake.

Seems like the most likely scenario. Mbolhi would be the starter, Blake would back him up and get a decent amount of games. You would need a third goalkeeper, an American, to cover for international duty. This could be a Brian Holt or Chris Konopka type of guy.

3. Move Blake, keep Mbolhi and MacMath.

Blake probably has more value than MacMath at this point. The issue is that Orlando and NYC realize they might be able to get MacMath for free in the expansion draft. Why trade away resources right now?

This scenario relegates MacMath to a backup role and trades away last year’s top draft pick.

4. Move two of your goalkeepers, keep a third.

If you can get something of value in return, it might make sense to try to move two of these guys to allocate money and resources for a striker.

5. Blow up the whole thing and start over.

Can’t hurt, right?


  1. Who besides NYCFC and OCFC are in the market for a GK? Houston?

    I’d hate to see a player as good as MacMath go away in the expansion draft.

  2. this is a mess entirely of Sak’s own making.

    If those are my options I will take #4, move 2 of our 3 goalies. I note that Curtin showed no interest in giving Blake any playing time at the end of the season, so there is no reason to let a #1 draft pick ride the bench next season.

    If Zac goes and we will need an American back-up when Blake and M’Bolhi are away on national duty, then why not just trade Blake and get an American #2.

  3. I’m not entirely clear on the Zack Steffen situation, but if he’s technically a homegrown player, I say we abandon our current young GKs. Keep M’Bolhi, and sign Steffen and a (3rd String) backup. We probably don’t get anything for MacMath, but Blake is of some value, so it’s a win-win. M’Bolhi won’t be here for long, but maybe he’s here long enough to groom Steffen for the starting role sometime down the line.

  4. The Chopper says:

    While its a lot of money tied up in the position, I can see all three staying. In that scenario, Blake goes on loan and gets his minutes elsewhere. Zak backs up Rais. Not surprised to hear that Zak did not attract much interest in the trade market.

  5. Did I miss the part about further alienating your fanbase by treating Zac so shabbily in this wholly unnecessary, completely self inflicted dilemma or the irony of his PK play getting us to the season’s high point compared to Rais’s lackadaisical untimely mishit and how each of them handled themselves in their big moments? If Mbolhi doesn’t learn how to mollify both fans & press, he will quickly become a lightning rod for fan unrest and resentment.

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