Heading into the 2015 season, Zac MacMath's year-long loan to the Colorado Rapids seemingly cleared the way for World Cup veteran Rais M'Bolhi to shake an unpleasant start to his tenure with the Philadelphia Union and cement his position as the man behind the pipes. While M'Bolhi spent the better part of the pre-season preparing for and competing in the Africa Cup of Nations, his large salary virtually assured him a starting role upon his return. Further securing alpha-status, goalkeeping coach Paulo Grilo (M'Bolhi's mentor and friend from previous club CSKA Sofia) was formally named to the Union's technical staff after working with the team on an interim basis when they arrived together in 2014.
Meanwhile, a cap-free Andre Blake (thanks to his Generation Adidas status) was oozing with confidence after earning a Golden Glove for his part in the Jamaican National Team's championship run through the CONCACAF Caribbean Cup. Winfried Schaefer, Jamaica's German-born coach, was quite outspoken about the need for Blake to secure in-game minutes, and Jim Curtin made several statements suggesting that some manner of flexible loan deal (possibly to USL affiliate Harrisburg City Islanders) was being considered.
Aware of the possibility that both top goalkeepers could spend time with their respective national teams, the team signed a local third-stringer in John McCarthy, following a breakout season with the Rochester Rhinos in which he was named USL PRO Rookie of the Year and Goalkeeper of the Year. McCarthy's signing came at the expense of winter trialist and former Harrisburg City Islander Brian Sylvestre, who eventually latched on with the Carolina Railhawks.
Other than having two international player spots, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a ton of bad karma were tied up in the goalkeeper position, what could possibly go wrong?
Rais M'Bolhi's form, attitude, rapport with teammates on the field, and demeanor in the locker room saw him banished from team activities five games into the season. In his 5 games (0-3-2 record), Rais flailed at the ball, feigned injury when scored upon, angrily gestured and jawed at his defenders, faced 20 shots on goal, saved 10 and allowed 9 goals. His lone shutout came in a game where there were 0 shots on goal. Jim Curtin and Chris Albright spent the better part of 5 months trying to offload the Algerian National Team goalkeeper before a mutual agreement was made for his contract to be terminated - well beyond the point the team could recover some of his salary cap hit.
Andre Blake tore the meniscus in his left knee (requiring surgery) just weeks prior to the start of the regular season, he tore the meniscus in his right knee (requiring surgery) just days prior to making a full recovery from the first one, and he was called up but unused by Jamaica in their impressive run to the 2015 Gold Cup Final. Blake was ultimately out of action until mid-August, managing 6 league appearances (2-3-1 record, 34 shots faced, 26 saves, 9 goals against, 2 shutouts) and a start in the U.S. Open Cup Final (119 minutes, removed just prior to the decisive penalty kicks).
John McCarthy was thrust into the starting goalkeeper role by mid-April, and his debut at home against expansion side New York City FC stood as the team's first league win (and only win through their first 10 matches... not good in a 34-game season). His second game ended in a draw less than a week later against the same opponent. McCarthy's fortune took a downward turn, as the team dropped the next three matches and Andre Blake appeared to be rounding back into form. Things went from bad to worse when Blake (meniscus) and McCarthy (concussion) sustained injuries within seconds of each other that helped keep them out of league action for a significant portion of the rest of the season. McCarthy eventually made 6 more league appearances between August and September, amassing a 3-5-3 record, saving 22 of 41 shots faced, allowing 18 goals, and posting 2 shutouts. His most shining moments, however, occurred in the Union's U.S. Open Cup Final run, where he notched four wins (two of which were secured in penalty kick shootouts). McCarthy also saved one penalty attempt in the shootout against Sporting Kansas City upon his 119th-minute arrival in the final, though tremendously-taken spot kicks on both sides essentially made the goalkeepers a non-factor.
Brian Sylvestre (remember that guy cut in the offseason?) was initially signed on a short-term loan deal with the Carolina Railhawks to provide roster cover when M'Bolhi and Blake were out of the picture, but he finished the season as the team's leader in goalkeeper minutes played, wins, and shutouts. The former City Islander served admirably as the starter through May, June, and July, racking up 5 wins and a draw in 12 appearances. Though his initial loan was extended through the rest of the season, a nasty hand laceration, being cup-tied to the Railhawks, a desire to get McCarthy league minutes to build confidence ahead of USOC appearances, and Andre Blake's form eventually unseated Sylvestre towards the end of the season.
There were a couple of occasions where there was only one healthy goalkeeper available, and rather than recalling M'Bolhi from exile, Trey Mitchell (the league's emergency pool goalkeeper) held down the spot on the bench without incident.
Most Memorable Moment
One would think this would go to John McCarthy earning the team’s first win in his debut against NYCFC, or saving multiple penalty kicks between U.S. Open Cup shootouts in the Round of 32 and Semi-final. It could possibly be handed to Andre Blake’s spectacular 10-save performance (on 11 shots) against New England Revolution that changed Jim Curtin’s mind about who should start in the USOC final. It could be handed to the admirable efforts of Brian Sylvestre, who was initially cut by the team before becoming the 3rd winningest goalkeeper in Union history.
The most memorable moment, however, was the glorious day in early April when Jim Curtin set the wheels of change in motion declaring, "I think it's best for [M'Bolhi] and the team that he's not with the group."
Barring injury, Andre Blake (who remains cap-free and no longer requires an international roster spot) will be the starting goalkeeper for the 2016 season, and it would make sense to keep local feel-good story John McCarthy around as an inexpensive reserve or USL player to fill in when Blake is in net for his national team. Several major questions remain, however: What will become of 24 year old Zac MacMath (34-39-29, 28 shutouts for the Union) now that Colorado has announced that he will not return to the Rapids next season? Will the Union seek to make a more permanent move for Brian Sylvestre, whose rights still belong to the Carolina Railhawks? Should the team instead make a move to bring in a veteran to mentor and support Blake, who seems to have the keys to the kingdom but only 2 league wins to his name? Who will serve as goalkeeping coach, now that the team has parted ways with Paulo Grilo?
Leave your thoughts below!