Editor’s Note: Bill sent this submission in to RSL Soapbox recently. It’s a well-researched piece that paints a fascinating picture of goalkeeper development and is worth a full read. You can find more of his work at Everybody Soccer, and he’s written for various U.S.-based publications. He can be found on Twitter, too: @letsallsoccer. Enjoy!
For younger MLS fans, it may come as a shock to know that Zac MacMath was once expected to become a future starter for the national team. Before turning 21, MacMath had already been featured at every level of the USYNT, earned trials overseas, and emerged out of the collegiate system as one of the top American prospects in the game. But MacMath’s path to the pros is perhaps one best served as a warning on the dangers of a haphazard approach with player development.
Rewind back to the fall of 2006, where the St. Petersburg product would join the Bradenton residency program. Despite the 2006 fall class lacking the firepower that previous classes contained, MacMath’s was largely agreed upon as the top goalkeeper in the country. Peter Mannino, a club director for MacMath, described the young goalkeeper as a player with “unlimited potential to get to the national and Olympic teams” while the University of Maryland head coach Sacho Cirovski would brag about their latest recruit being “the best high school goalkeeper in the country.” MacMath carried a lot of momentum in the early stages of his career, explaining why he was invited on a U23 trip as a 16-year-old, why MacMath would verbally commit to Cirovski for only two years (which he would then “explore his options” thereafter), and why MacMath was a two-time Parade Magazine All-American in his last two years as a goalkeeper.
“Zac [MacMath] is the best high school goalkeeper in the country.”
— Sacho Cirovski, February 2008
Prior to the 2007 U17 World Cup, MacMath was rumored to have a trail opportunity in Germany after the U17s cruised through the mostly uneventful World Cup qualification process. At the World Cup, the U17s would ultimately lose in the round of 16 to Germany. A year later, and at only 17 years old, MacMath would be a part of a star-studded cast who would win Maryland’s third national championship. Over the three years with Maryland, MacMath would compile a 51-10-3 record, narrowly missing out on two more trips to the College Cup, falling short in the Elite Eight in both 2009 and 2010. With another year of eligibility left on the table, MacMath would forgo his senior year to enter the MLS SuperDraft with the likes of Darlington Nagbe, Perry Kitchen, and Zarek Valentin. MacMath was heavily looked at by all of the teams with an early pick but it would be the Philadelphia Union who selected the University of Maryland goalkeeper fifth overall.
Take a second to step back and consider MacMath’s place in the US goalkeeper pecking order in 2011. No other U23 goalkeeper was more decorated than MacMath. MacMath left the University of Maryland after earning first-team All-American honors, had trained with Everton (in which he would do so three times over three years), boasted 29 starts between U17 and U20 programs, and would be training with the U23s at the end of 2011, marking five years between his first and last time with the U23s. Although the U20s had failed to qualify for the World Cup, due to a 2-1 loss to Guatemala, where the US wasn’t short on scoring chances, MacMath had a mostly positive tournament, showcasing a better performance than what 2007 featured. For a modern comparison, examine all the excitement currently surrounding David Ochoa and translate that to MacMath, who had an equally impressive resume as the young RSL goalkeeper possesses does at 19 years old.
A Polarizing Time in Philadelphia
Entering the 2011 season, MacMath was praised for his ability so much so that John Harkes, who was on the desk for the SuperDraft, claimed that MacMath “was capable of jumping right in there and making a difference [and being] an impact player straight away. I think he fills that need right there, that void for a goalkeeper.” Philadelphia returned just one of their three young goalkeepers for the inaugural season, all of which received playing time but would combine for conceding the second-most goals in the league. The Union would let Chris Seitz, another highly touted U20 prospect, walk to FC Dallas in the re-entry draft, as well as waive Brian Perk. Brad Knighton would be the lone goalkeeper to return from 2010.
The Union coaching staff would fill out the roster with 40-year-old goalkeeper Colombian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón, who had been featured with the Colombian national team for the past twenty years. Mondragón’s legendary World Cup status would help shore up the defensive woes and earn the Union a trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals in the team’s second year. Although Mondragón was the clear number one, MacMath would earn a string of seven starts, including his first professional, when Mondragón would miss time for a broken finger. MacMath would go undefeated in his first season, prompting some to declare that “this kid has more than proven that he is ready to be a starting goalkeeper in this league” and that “MacMath isn’t just any other young up and comer.”
Heading into 2012, MacMath’s resume now boasted two training stints with Everton, as well as call-ups with the U23 team that attempted qualifying for the 2012 Olympics. Although MacMath would not be involved in the U23 qualification, losing out to Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson, the poor showing from the selected goalkeepers against Canada and El Salvador would raise the question, “What if MacMath was in goal?” Unfortunately the 2012 season would not go MacMath’s way as Steve Davis and others would essentially blame MacMath’s performances in goal for taking the team out of playoff contention, which would set the tone for the goalkeeper’s next few years in Philadelphia. The Union would not return to the playoffs until 2016, although a US Open Cup semifinal run would be a small bright spot on the season.
Despite the critics, MacMath was - and still is - one of few goalkeepers to start an MLS match at just 21 years old. Fans hoped 2013 would be a more fruitful year for MacMath, who now had racked a plethora of experience over his 39 league starts in two years. In spite of this, 2013 would follow the previous season’s lack of success for both the Union and MacMath. Philadelphia still struggled to put the ball in the back of the net, outscoring only five teams in league goals and missing out on playoffs once again. MacMath finished with more polarizing reviews, as both sides were able to point to positives and negatives.
Philadelphia Make Room for a Young Goalkeeper, Again
Union fans entered the 2014 SuperDraft with low expectations, hoping to salvage anything with a late first-round pick. However, Philadelphia manager John Hackworth reportedly, “could hardly keep his cool about how much the team loved Andre Blake” and would trade up to get the UConn product with the first pick in the draft. Although Hackworth would be released from his position in six months, this didn’t undo the monumental praise towards Blake, the most impressive coming from his UConn coach, Ray Reid, saying Blake is “the LeBron James of goalkeepers”. Zac MacMath would only say that he was “a little bit surprised” by the move.
With the surprise selection, fans largely wanted to move on from MacMath in favor of Andre Blake, despite MacMath oddly being a year younger than Blake. But the Union had sunken a lot of resources in MacMath, who had obtained more league appearances in a shorter amount of time than Tim Howard did, who left for Manchester United on a $4 million transfer fee. Committing to MacMath for one more year, the Union would once again miss playoffs, this time by seven points, scoring and conceding an even 51 goals over the year. Once again MacMath had left fans unimpressed and with Andre Blake sitting on the bench, the writing was on the wall.
What Went Wrong in Philadelphia?
Pinpointing the exact problem for MacMath’s time in Philadelphia is difficult, as there were a number of moving pieces in the Union’s first years as a franchise. For starters, the Union couldn’t score and struggled to crack the top half of the league’s offenses during MacMath’s three years as a starter. Additionally, taking into account MacMath’s reputation went from sky-high to ground zero in a matter of two years - from the outstanding unbeaten streak he amounted in 2011 to the winter of 2013-14 - it doesn’t take long to realize that the unlimited rope Philadelphia gave the U23 goalkeeper did little to help him swim in the deep end. When Blake entered the scene, MacMath had 102 starts to his name yet fans wanted to start the goalkeeper who had zero professional starts. Compare this to Tim Howard’s time with the Metrostars, who smartly fed Howard a handful of starts over his early seasons (only 17 in three years) then gave him the green light when he was ready. It’s the same reason why a coach will give limited playing time to younger players, trying to ensure they can take on the incremental steps in responsibility one at a time, as opposed to all at once. In contrast, MacMath had been fast-tracked at a quicker rate than Tim Howard.
A brief look into Philadelphia’s carousel of goalkeepers in their early MLS years follows:
Following his last season with the Union in 2014, Philadelphia tried to shop MacMath for six months but MacMath’s stock had plummeted so far that the best they could land was a loan to the Colorado Rapids, securing a second-round draft pick in exchange. The Union would select midfielder Eric Bird with the pick, who would never play for the Union in his one year with the team, which matched the carousel of goalkeepers featured in the franchise’s history.
MacMath’s time in Colorado was met with polar opposites from his tenure in Philadelphia: constrained playing time but highly rated reviews when he was featured. The Maryland alum would briefly express his frustration about losing the starting spot to Tim Howard, saying, “no matter what I was going to do on the field,” despite the Rapids playing better with MacMath in goal. The stop-and-go nature of MacMath’s years in Colorado would limit him to 34 matches in four years, mostly stepping in whenever Howard was away with the national team.
Colorado would trade MacMath to Vancouver at the end of 2018 but the breath of fresh air was quickly snuffed out as Canadian national team goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau had a stellar year, keeping MacMath mostly on the bench. MacMath would earn eight starts sprinkling throughout the season but once again would be traded to Real Salt Lake in December of 2019. After earning 103 games in his first four years, MacMath could only manage 39 games from 2015-2019 after and bounced from team to team, looking for a home.
Lessons Learned in Goalkeeper Development
In 2020, MacMath would find himself with a new team, Real Salt Lake, marking his third team in as many years. Despite the good rapport in Colorado and Vancouver, it seemed the league viewed him as a sort of damaged goods for his early years with Philadelphia. But before the 2020 season was put on hiatus, MacMath looked like a completely rejuvenated goalkeeper, possessing a confident swagger that we haven’t seen since his days at Maryland.
For young goalkeepers everywhere, there are few lessons to learn from MacMath’s journey. First, team success doesn’t always equate to how much responsibility the goalkeeper can handle. Looking at MacMath’s early seven-game unbeaten run in 2011, there’s a palpable franticness to his game, specifically in his decision-making and movement in the box, as shown against Chivas USA in week 28. MacMath was praised for filling in for an injured Mondragón but for those paying attention, it was clear he still had a lot of growing to do. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as MacMath was only twenty years old at the time but the results blinded many people into recognizing where he still needed to develop. Despite MacMath’s winning record, it’s good to remember that unlimited game time - regardless of results - doesn’t guarantee a player will reach their full potential as fast as possible, if at all.
The second lesson to take from MacMath’s career is recognizing where a young goalkeeper needs to grow and addressing it in a long-term approach. For most, the main issue is the speed of play. This is usually solved by getting playing time and general exposure to professional training and game environments. However, MacMath’s issues were largely found in decision-making and movement in the box, not the speed of play. MacMath’s most iconic error, an own goal ricocheting off his face, wasn’t a result of increased speed of play, but the decision-making behind handling a tricky cross. Whether this is a mental, tactical knowledge, or general prep work issue, it’s impossible to say outside looking in. But what was clear from the start was that MacMath was a brave goalkeeper who would improvise far too often. You can see the transformation in MacMath’s play from the Chivas match in 2011 (previous link) to the 2020 opener against Orlando City (listed below). While he wasn’t tested too heavily in the latter match, his movement in the box is much more methodical. He looks significantly more composed now and isn’t shaken by chaos in the box. It’s the poise you expect from a veteran goalkeeper and one that should have been the main focus in MacMath’s early development.
Take notice of MacMath’s methodical movement in the box. While he didn’t face a large percentage of shots, the movement and decision-making is vastly improved from his time in Philadelphia.
Lastly, the team structure is incredibly important for a young goalkeeper. For MacMath, he was given little to no competition between Mondragón exit and Blake’s entrance. At MacMath’s age, he needs competition to continue to grow, not unlimited rope that ignores all the mistakes he might make. If MacMath was supposed to be the franchise’s long-term goalkeeper, the Union should have focused on long-term planning. There’s a reason why MLS has featured so few U23 goalkeepers. Teams must divvy out the right portions of responsibility, as well as game time, in maintaining a long-term outlook for young players. While maintaining a balance of competitive minutes isn’t easy and the other extreme (no minutes at all) is equally problematic, throwing a player too far into the deep end can stunt their development and label the player within the league as damaged goods. For a young goalkeeper in need of starting his professional career off on the right foot, becoming a starter for a losing franchise year-in, year-out is an extremely risky path to venture down.
After a long and bumpy road, 2020 showed the first positive signs for MacMath in quite some time. After many assumed David Ochoa would be the starting goalkeeper for Real Salt Lake, MacMath was publicly backed by RSL head coach Freddy Juarez. As MacMath tries to regain his momentum later in the year, the parallels between MacMatha and Ochoa are shockingly similar, including their play styles. Ochoa and MacMath (in his early years) were both praised for their distribution and share Tim Melia’s scrambling bravery. Their successes are largely found in a willingness to insert themselves early instead of waiting on the play to reach them. Since leaving Philadelphia, MacMath has since taken a more conservative approach in goal, which is a credit to his conscious self-development in how he plays the position, finding what best fits for him. As to how David Ochoa rounds out, it’s anyone’s guess, but the rise in fame between MacMath and Ochoa shouldn’t be overlooked.
As Ochoa begins his journey into the professional game, some are clamoring for him to become the immediate starter for Real Salt Lake without recognizing the pitfalls MacMath faced in his near-decadelong time in MLS. Ochoa has an impressive resume at 19 years old, one that rivals Zac MacMath’s. But if there’s only one lesson to take from MacMath’s time in Philadelphia, it’s that being the youngest goalkeeper to reach 100 appearances in MLS isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.