Analysis / Season Reviews

Season review: Zac MacMath’s long, strange season

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Editors’ Note: PSP’s season review series will look at various aspects of Philadelphia Union’s 2014 season with the new perspective of having had a little bit of time to reflect. One post will run per weekday till Christmas.

If at the start of the 2013 season, you walked up to a group of Union fans and suggested that in less than two years they would be sadly lamenting Zac MacMath’s departure from the team, they would have laughed in your face.

Yet that’s where we sit on the eve of the expansion draft. As NYCFC and Orlando City prepare to snatch up talent from around the league, the consensus seems to be that the Maryland product has played his last game in blue and gold — and that it’s a crying shame.

But there’s another way to look at this.

The Union have three goalkeepers on their roster. One of them is on the shortlist for CAF Player of the Year and single-handedly kept Algeria in a match with the eventual champions at the World Cup. Another is a No. 1 draft pick who is already earning caps for his senior national team. And the third guy played 29 games this year and saved 62 percent of the shots he faced. Among MLS goalkeepers who appeared in more than 25 games, only two had a lower save percentage.

From this reading, the question can be asked: Why are we so disappointed about losing a guy who is, statistically speaking, a league-average goalkeeper?

Therein lies the story of Zac MacMath’s star-crossed season.

Why do we suddenly love this guy?

It’s rare to see a player improve dramatically before our eyes. It’s incredibly rare in the history of the Union. Once a player is seen to be bad, it takes an incredible amount of improvement for perceptions to change.

(I’m as guilty of that as anyone. For example, some people say Fabinho played well at the end of the season and consequently should not be fired into the sun. I, however, did not see enough to halt construction on the Sun Rocket.)

In 2013, MacMath’s stock dipped down to shockingly low levels, particularly after a calamitous error led to two dropped points against FC Dallas. The cry was that MacMath was not good at commanding his box, not good at punching away balls, not really good at goalkeeping in general.

Somewhat suddenly, though, MacMath took the criticism to heart. He developed a Rocky-esque desire to beat every incoming ball within an inch of his life, started actually yelling at his teammates, and generally played quite a bit better.

This form carried over into the early part of 2014, when MacMath saved three straight penalties. Stopping one is hard enough, but No. 18 made it look easy as he saved multiple points for the Union through the horrible abyss that started the season.

This improvement was noticed and appreciated by many Union fans, and MacMath became seen as a player on the rise. A key part of the franchise even.

But even as his form improved, things got strange off the pitch.

Even as MacMath was growing, it seems clear that the front office did not see him as a long-term solution at GK. First, it was Oka Nikolov, who pushed MacMath through the second half of 2013. Then came the truly perplexing move to draft Andre Blake with the No. 1 pick in front of the hometown fans in the SuperDraft. The mid-season acquisition of Rais Mbolhi topped it all off. Suddenly, Zac MacMath found himself consigned to the backup job.

(The Blake and Mbolhi signings, in tandem, make you wonder whether the Union made a pitch to Mbolhi or someone like him in the winter but couldn’t close the deal. It’s almost as if they expected that MacMath wouldn’t be on the team anymore. Awkward…)

It’s this awkward situation that, I think, has stoked fans’ feelings for Zac MacMath. Something in MacMath’s struggles this year speaks to our universal sympathy for someone who’s getting a raw deal. No one wants to see their employer spend capital to bring in a new employee who is clearly intended to supplant you. And absolutely no one wants an employer to basically say to one’s face, “We would like you to leave as soon as your contract allows. Until then, go sit in a corner and think about what you have done.”

MacMath did everything in his power to earn the job — including a sterling performance in the penalty shootout against FC Dallas, the team that marked the nadir of his career, to bring the Union through to the US Open Cup final. It just wasn’t enough.

Leaving on a jet plane

I’m not going to argue that MacMath didn’t get a raw deal. He deserved better, and there’s no question about that.

But I also think that, while there were individual moments of brilliance from MacMath this year, it’s tough to see him as a great MLS goalkeeper for at least several more years. See, for example, the aforementioned save percentage. Keepers also deserve some share of responsibility for organizing a defense, which has never been MacMath’s strong suit; he remains far too quiet for the role.

It’s also worth comparing MacMath to his peers. He is obviously not on the level of Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, and Nick Rimando, but he has also failed to establish himself in the second tier of USMNT goalkeepers. This second tier, containing Eastern Conference competition Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid along with Southampton backup Cody Cropper, received call-ups or playing time this year with the senior squad. MacMath has aged out of the U-23 setup without finding a place in the international program.

It’s not like the Union are replacing MacMath with just any old scrub. Yes, Rais Mbolhi had just about the worst possible introduction a player could have. And yes, his club situation has been very unsettled for most of his career. But he has had a sterling career for Algeria and might benefit from a consistent, healthy club setup (i.e. not the Bulgarian first division). Mbolhi isn’t someone learning how to start — he’s in the prime of his career. Given a full offseason to settle in the United States and with the Union, he will almost certainly be an upgrade over MacMath.

In 2014, Zac MacMath lost his job but won the loyalty of Union fans.

That’s a feat that can be accomplished only in a truly strange year.

41 Comments

  1. Counterpoint: Centerback Aaron Wheeler.

  2. I may take some stick for this, but you just do not give up on a 23 year old goalkeeper that has already made 100+ starts in Major League Soccer.

    If he goes, he’ll haunt the Union for years to come.

    • Even worse, Union will struggle to get anything of value for the guy.

    • And thats what I feel like the Union is doing – giving up. He deserves better.

    • James lockerbie says:

      I have to agree with you with that. We just suffered the growing pains with zac
      And now we toss him a side?

      • This is pro footy………growing pains? You get a chance to sink or swim at this level, thats it!……he can’t swim with the big boys. There is no such thing as “growing pains” at this level. Growing pains are for the kids in the academy!

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        Have to disagree pretty strongly here. Young players require lots of chances, and most that succeed are given them.
        .
        It’s easy to forget how completely terrible both Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson were at different points in their young careers. Both came into the league before MacMath and were starters very young as well. Both had howler plagued seasons, and both suffered temporary demotions. In the end, both DC and Chicago stuck with them and gave them the support to succeed, which they obviously have.
        .
        That is not to say that MacMath will ever reach their level, we simply don’t know that yet. But to suggest that there aren’t growing pains in professional soccer and that a 23 year old has proven he cannot “swim with the big boys” is simply inaccurate .

      • and you played where?…….ok. Your whole mindset is the problem………….keep writing. 23 is not young in footy terms and well past growing pains……even for a keeper. You probably think 1st through 10th place should get a trophy too!

      • +++++ Thank you Eli!! Goaltenders for the most part reach maturity later in there careers compared to field players.

      • thats what the academies are for……….development. The 1st team is where you put up or shut up. Or…..get transferred or dropped. You waste time and $$$$$ worrying about a 23 year old’s development and feelings. He’s a professional footballer…and I’m sure he understands its a business. Hamid had an upside that Zach has never shown.

      • Zach MacMath: 6ft. 175 lb.
        Bill Hamid: 6ft. 3 in. 225 lb.
        …….nuff said! Don’t even compare the two!

    • +1!

    • yes you do…………….5 years, no hardware. Things need to change.

      • Two questions:
        .
        How many of those years has MacMath been a starter?
        .
        By removing MacMath from the roster, are we guaranteed to get some hardware?

      • enough to see him pick the ball out of the back of the net way too many times and cost the Union matches. Madragon is the only top level keeper this team has had……the rest have been subpar. Despite the major screw up….M’bholi is a good keeper and stop-gap measure. Blake and Steffan are the Union’s future.

      • Mondragon was not a top level keeper when he played here in any way. The Union put out the best defensive four they’ve had and then played nothing but grinding, defensive soccer the whole year. That’s why they conceded so few goals. Also Steffan is never going to play for the Union.

        Your incredibly abrasive and annoying attitude in these comments seems to be hiding the fact that you don’t actually know that much.

      • what are you talking about? I’ll give you that we had a better back 4 when Madragon was in goal. Name me one keeper we have had that is better. You name me one professional keeper worth his grain of salt that is 6ft 175? I will compare CV’s with you any day of the week son! I am extremely glad to have annoyed you! If you have played at a pretty high level, which I really don’t think you….or any of these writers have, your going to get criticism…..because you guys really don’t know what your talking about.

      • Steffan may or may not play for the Union…..but they do have his rights. So, technically, yes we do still have a chance to sign him.

      • I bet you were a great college club player in your day………

      • Mondragon was a bit old and slow of foot- but there is no question the team played as well as it did defensively because of his command. I sat in section 115 ( 30 feet from him) and listened to him for a whole season- he was a chess master in cage- total command. Total.
        .
        As far as abrasiveness, I’ve sparred with alicat125 before- his is a strong opinion- but one often geared at raising awareness to the incumbent faults of the US Soccer mindset.
        .
        I am all for the challenge as should we all be.
        .
        As Michael Corleone says, ‘It isn’t personal Sonny, it’s just business’ – right alicat125?

      • i’ll support you point. at this point nothing is sacred. i’m not tied to anyone or anything with this club.

        although i’m currently watching the flyers making horrible GM decisions — the goalie carousel too — and i am at the same point with them

      • Joel, I couldn’t reply under you………….but thanks dude…….at least someone gets it! I sat in 114 for a few years, behind him too………….he was up the teams’ keesters the whole match, like any keeper should be.

  3. What will be really awkward if MacMath leaves is that we’ll have two keepers who will likely be called up for every international date next year. We might end up with Random Pool Goalkeeper making more starts than Blake in 2015.

  4. old soccer coach says:

    You have marshaled the facts about MacMath quite well. May I suggest that they fit into the following pattern, that Zac MacMath responds well to the threat of competition. Novikov arrives and his game rises. Blake is drafted and his game further improves. M’Bohli wasn’t an actual presence long enough to have a discernible effect yet. To remove him completely now flouts the club’s stated developmental philosophy. In my judgment they will protect him in the draft and keep him, loaning Blake out to Harrisburg if HCI will play him ahead of Nick Noble a significant amount of the time.

  5. This really got to me – ‘In 2014, Zac MacMath lost his job but won the loyalty of Union fans.’

    In 2010 ___________ lost his job…
    In 2011 ___________ lost his job…
    In 2012 ___________ lost his job…
    In 2013 ___________ lost his job…

    Fill in the blanks.

  6. Stop. MacMath is not a starting GK and has not progressed like anyone thought he would. First, he is frail for a professional GK. He needs to hit the weights and put on some muscle, look at the size of most pro GK’s. He is small. Second, he has a deer in headlights look to him whenever they face adversity…….almost scared. He CANNOT command a box to save his life. The MLS is a league where the ball is the air a lot in the box…..you need a strong presence that opposition forwards fear…….Zach is not that guy.3. Another kid developed by the academy that has talent…………but no desire to compete. He honestly would have been better off spending another 2 years in college getting hammered by big ACC ( Big 10 now) forwards. That would have toughened him up.4. I hope Zach Steffan is paying attention to this. If you can’t deal with the air game…………player or keeper, you can’t be on the pitch at this level, or college level, or darn….even high school!

    • I will give the author a +1 for the vague use of a Grateful Dead line. Now whenever I see MacMath, Truckin is going to pop into my head!

      • Honestly, the look on MacMath’s face during some matches is like he ate a little funny piece of paper and is trying to get his space together!

    • I like M’Bohli and Zac as back up and Andre finding playing time but still part of the Union future, cause from what I’ve seen, his athleticism is ridiculous. Fifteen pounds of muscle and lots of reps and we’re good to go.
      .
      Three to five years he is the anchor stud keeper of the future.
      .

    • Alicat215, I agree with some of your points that he is not up to par to be a starter but to say that he’s frail and too small? I dont think he’s either of those and thats not all that makes a great player. So I guess nogueira and messi aren’t fit for the game as well? Being a great player comes from intelligence and technique of a player not the size of them.

  7. I’d like to think that MBolhi has a higher ceiling as a starting keeper, so I don’t feel uncomfortable with him and Blake as our GKs (international breaks aside). It’s how we got into this predicament in the first place, how Zac got jerked around this year, and the likely outcome (Zac leaving for nothing) that stinks. He was great with the fans and seemed to mesh well with teammates, so the handling of the situation stings. Hopefully, no MBolhi no party makes us all forget about it by the time the summer rolls around.

    • ScottE – Exactly. It’s not the final outcome that’s the problem, it’s how Nicky Sak and the Boys handled the goalkeeping situation overall this season.

  8. I for one would like the Union to have MBolhi as the starter with Zac(23yrs) as a back up who will learn from him, I think a deal should be made for Blake that will help bring skill and talent to this cash restricted organization. We need to get behind MBolhi as our starter in goal. We can not overlook the fact that Sakiewicz is the reason the situation in goal was handled so badly. MacMath at 23 years old has had to deal with Sakiewicz/Hackworh /Sakiewicz initiated situations that would have destroyed the confidence of most athletes his age. MacMath has shown tremendous character throughout this entire dog and pony show. Blake in my opinion would not want to be a backup to anyone given his statis as an internatioinal starter. So I say lets use that to bring in some badly needed talent from the one position on the Union where there is value. The Union management has a chance here to really strengthen the team and show us all that they know what they are doing, at least in this situation. I want to trust this organization but my gut tells me not to. It’s not the feeling I thought I would have after 5 years.

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