CHESTER, Pa. – The Philadelphia Union have had their eyes on Rais Mbolhi for a while.
The Algerian goalkeeper’s stellar performance in the World Cup only intensified their desire to snag him – but it also meant the team had to fend off other potential suitors.
Fittingly, then, Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz and interim manger Jim Curtin were all smiles Wednesday after they signed Mbolhi to a long-term deal and unveiled their newest acquisition at a much-hyped PPL Park press conference.
“As a coach, you get very excited when you can bring in a player of this caliber,” Curtin said. “A world-class goalkeeper, they don’t grow on trees. They’re difficult to find. It was a World Cup where you saw a lot of exceptional goalkeepers, and he was one of them.
“People need to understand that he chose Philadelphia as a city over Champions League clubs to come here. He needs to be shown a lot of love for that from our great fan base.”
Mbolhi, who comes to the Union from the Bulgarian side CSKA Sofia, will unseat Zac MacMath as the team’s starter. While the Union offered no immediate plans for what they’ll do with MacMath and backup 'keeper Andre Blake – the top overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft – technical director Chris Albright admitted that goalkeeper was a “position we thought could be upgraded.”
“We saw an opportunity to get a world-class goalkeeper,” Albright said. “There were a class of goalkeepers at the World Cup and he clearly put himself in that elite level – that top three or four. When you’re talking about the best goalkeepers in the world, to be able to bring one to MLS on a longer-term deal that’s going to solidify the position for a while, that’s something we obviously had to jump at.”
Mbolhi certainly brings a lot of World Cup experience to PPL Park. After giving up just one goal in two 2010 World Cup games – the famous one that Landon Donovan scored to propel the US to the knockout round – Mbolhi led Algeria out of the knockout round of this summer’s World Cup before making 11 saves in a narrow extratime loss to eventual champion Germany.
That performance certainly raised the profile of Mbolhi, who said he had been in talks with the Union for the last “six or seven months.” But the Algerian decided on Philly after watching the Union’s 3-3 draw with the Colorado Rapids on July 12 alongside Sakiewicz in the owners’ box, calling it a “fairly easy” decision.
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“Nick has a vision for everything, and I have mine as well, and since I met Nick, my decision was already made because he wants to win,” Mbolhi said. “They have a really nice project, and that’s what I’m looking for.”
Mbolhi admitted he’s anxious to find some stability after bouncing around different clubs in Europe. He should be able to find that with the Union, who are prepared to hand the keys to the car to the 28-year-old for the foreseeable future.
“He’s at an age now where he’s hitting his prime as a goalkeeper,” Sakiewicz said. “Goalkeepers develop much later than field players – I think that’s a pretty well-known fact. He’s hitting his stride now as a top-class goalkeeper, and I couldn’t be more excited.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.