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Analyzing RSL’s goalkeeper debate

We’re taking a closer look at how Ochoa and MacMath compare.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at New York City FC Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

There is a lot to be made of the recent performances from the Claret and Cobalt. Certainly given a team record tying 0-6 defeat (a relatively understandable baseball score line) the gut reaction is to seek out scapegoats and reasons why the sky is falling.

An obvious choice for some of this criticism is Zac MacMath, who no matter how you shake things out or want to pin blame, has been a considerable liability with some of this mistakes the past few matches. This is a stark contrast to a month ago where he was the complete opposite of that, seemingly earning the team point’s singlehandedly with an array of clutch saves. Given his form and importance to the team at that point, much of the fan base was calling for him to remain the starter role even once Ochoa returned to fitness.

So which overreaction is more spot-on? March superhero MacMath, or the April Loris Karius version?

Before diving too deep, it’s good to keep in mind just what both MacMath and Ochoa offer as things stand, as well as looking at where their statistics compare to the rest of the MLS goalkeepers. Given the complexities and nuances of the position, many critical attributes are really only observable with the good old eye test; handling, command inside the box, ability to act as a sweeper. Of the things we can observe on paper, arguably the two most important categories for modern goalkeepers are included.

Statistics from mlssoccer.com and americansocceranalysis.com

Given the rise in high-pressing due to gegenpress, goalkeepers more than any time in the history of the sport must be able to make quick, accurate passes on the ground in order to keep possession. In 2011 the five best passing goalkeepers in MLS averaged a 63.3% successful passing ratio. In 2021 the top five passers averaged a staggering 79.3%, as year after year team’s ditched direct long-ball play in favor of the shorter, more risky possession based tactics.

Now, those are the benchmarks for each season, the average MLS starting goalkeeper currently falls around 70% on their passing accuracy. Still significantly higher than what was consider the “best” only 10 years ago. Some of that is due to an increase in player quality in the league, but the modern style of soccer is just as much to blame, if not more.

As noted from 2021, both MacMath and Ochoa fell considerably short of the league average in this department. The main contributor to this is the amount of long balls that RSL play compared to the league, both MacMath and Ochoa landing in the top 10 goalkeepers in MLS for the distance of their attempted passes in 2021. This year has only been worse, as MacMath is currently attempting the longest passes on average of all MLS Goalkeepers, and by a lot.

Statistics from americansocceranalysis.com

The most straight forward conclusion to draw form this is that both goalkeepers are average to below-average passers in the league, and look much worse considering they are playing a less modern style - routinely knocking the ball deep down field for direct play and slot machine odds of retaining possession.

When it comes to short passing, while MacMath has certainly stole the show recently, it’s easy to forget that Ochoa doesn’t often instill confidence with some of his decision making too. Perhaps a slight edge here would go to the Mexican keeper, but not by much.

Shot stopping is another matter, while I’d consider both at a similar level, I do think that Zac is the better straight up shot stopper, which does happen to be the most important skill in goalkeeping. The statistics over the last three seasons back up that suspicion as well. Mind you that MacMath is still riding a respectable 71% save ratio for the current campaign, despite the six that flew passed him on Sunday. Not bad at all.

More so than any other position, goalkeeper is a role of intangibles that are difficult to quantify. Outside of differences that exist there between players which everyone will interpret differently, the personality of the two players are contrasting as well. One has to wonder which is more valuable to a team’s edge and identity in game; a team leader that everyone gravitates towards like MacMath, or the classic villain who’s mere presence will live in the minds of the opposing team and fans rent free.

So, hypothetically assuming Ochoa is back on Saturday, who should be taking the reins in net?

Form alone would lead us to the player that isn’t on a hot streak of poor giveaways leading to goal scoring chances. The obvious answer would be Ochoa. This however, does not necessarily mean that he is the better man for the job. There is a case to be made, if you can banish the memories of the last few games from your mind, that MacMath holds the overall edge. One of the major reasons he is the likely backup in spite of this has a lot to do with the ages of the two players. Ochoa is only 21 years old, and has a lot of potential to grow and become an elite player, 30 year old MacMath we are likely seeing at or near the very best of his career.

The slight statistical differences should not be enough to make up this gap in MacMath’s favor. This club has set its roots and foundation on the development of young players, so long as Ochoa is relatively comparable to MacMath in terms of performance, we should expect youth to win out, and rightfully so.