Our boy Zac has become a man. A shot-stopping, even-keeled, goalkeeping god of a man.
Besides using a possible late round Superdraft pick to add depth, the Union shouldn't have to concern itself with upgrading at the goalkeeper position. Zac MacMath affirmed himself this season as one of the league's best young goalkeepers.
Prior to training camp in Orlando, MacMath traveled to England to train with English Premier League club Everton for three weeks. After a shaky 2012 season where he ranked 5th in goals allowed, Zac MacMath needed to prove to John Hackworth that he could be trusted to take the reigns as the Union's starting goalkeeper. MacMath's above-average shot-stopping ability was the chief reason the club selected him with the fifth pick in the 2011 MLS Superdraft. However, MacMath's positioning, decision-making in pressure situations, and poor communication with the back line placed doubts in the minds of many whether he could be a reliable starting goalkeeper. Hackworth chose to put his full confidence in MacMath by not pursuing a veteran backup goalkeeper like Dan Kennedy or Kevin Hartman and instead went with journeyman Chris Konopka as the only other goalkeeper on the roster.
A Rocky Start
With 4 of the five members (including MacMath) being under the age of 24, the Union defense struggled in the first half of the season. The defense could only manage to record one clean sheet in the first two months of the season. MacMath exhibited some of the inconsistency typical of most young goalscorers. At times, he make some crucial saves in tough situations, but too often he made amateur mistakes like let in goals near posts from acute angled shots. MacMath's noticeable lack of communication with his back four also lead to some poor marking in the box and goals allowed on set pieces. However, as the backline started playing better in May, MacMath's indecisiveness in pressure situations started to cost the team precious points. The most notable example of this was a crushing 2-2 draw at PPL Park to a sputtering ten-man FC Dallas team. In stoppage time, Dallas lifted a free kick in the box for one of the players to pounce on. MacMath hesitated and then jumped to grab the ball when he should've just punched it away. MacMath was knocked to the ground without the ball by a opposing player, and Blas Perez poached on the ball in the box to grab a late equalizer. Many fans had their final straw of MacMath as the starting goalkeeper after this match, but Hackworth stuck by his young goalkeeper.
Enter Oka Nikolov, the Mr. Miyagi to Zac's Daniel Russo.
Or at least it seemed that way; once the 39 year old veteran from German Bundesliga club Eintracht Frankfurt, MacMath's play improved almost immediately. He was in proper positioning to stop shots a lot more. He started punching balls out with more regularity until he got more comfortable catching crosses in the last couple months of the season when his confidence was at its peak. The defense got a lot better at stopping set pieces, a sign of better communication between MacMath and the backline. MacMath looked like the rookie goalkeeper that kept a 1.07 GAA in 8 match when another veteran Union goalkeeper, Faryd Mondragon, was out with a groin injury. The fanbase went from wanting MacMath replaced in July to acknowledging him as one of the main reasons the Union were still in the playoff hunt in October.
MacMath ended the season with 12 clean sheets (5 in August and September), more than any other goalkeeper in the league. His 101 saves was good for 4th in MLS.
Season Highlight - Though I'm a big fan of MacMath's amazing stop of a Landon Donovan breakaway, MacMath's day of glory was a 1-0 victory over Sporting KC at Sporting Park in which MacMath had 5 saves and was named Man of the Match.
Season Lowlight - I mentioned MacMath's blunder against FC Dallas, but another moment that was just as embarrassing was his own goal against LA Galaxy in which Zac's flailing attempt to punch a Landon Donovan corner lead to the ball bouncing off his head and into the net.
With his strong finish to the season MacMath is the unquestioned number one goalkeeper, and his place in the starting XI is as strong as any player on the roster.. The fanbase no longer has to wish for another vet like Mondragon or Kevin Hartman to sign with the Union, or hope that academy phenom Zachary Steffen saves the day. Current Union goalkeeping vet Oka Nikolov came to the Union after 15 years at Eintracht Frankfurt, most of which were spent as the starter. If MacMath remains as consistent as he did finishing the season, the fanbase can only hope the kid from St. Petersburg, FL stays half as long as the Macedonian.