Wiebe: Fear not Rapids, Zac MacMath can deliver you to promised land

Let’s play an MLS guessing game, thanks to ESPN stat guru Paul Carr. We’ll call it ‘Which is which? Can you name the Rapids goalkeeper?’

One of the two netminders above is US and Colorado No. 1 Tim Howard, who is scheduled to undergo adductor surgery on Thursday that will keep him out for four months. The other is Rapids starter-turned-backup Zac MacMath, who begrudgingly made way for the Everton legend this summer.

So, without resorting to cheating, which is which? No need to rush. Take your time.

Give up yet? You might as well, because there’s no discernible gap between the two, at least by these metrics. Both outperformed Expected Goals Allowed (xGA). Both were close to dead even in shutouts and save percentage. Both were, by just about any measure, above-average MLS goalkeepers.

For what it’s worth, Howard is on the left and MacMath on the right, which brings me to my point.

Fear not, Rapids fans, Howard’s balky groin won’t be the difference between MLS Cup glory and and Conference Championship flame out in the 2016 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. In fact, Howard is almost certainly the one difference maker Colorado could have most afforded to lose ahead of next Tuesday’s first leg in Seattle, a game for which semifinal goalscorer Shkelzen Gashi is doubtful.

MacMath may not bring the experience, swagger, and intimidation factor that have made Howard one of the best goalkeepers in the world over the past decade, but he still has MLS’s best defense in front of him as well as a chip on his shoulder the size of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

Frankly, the 25-year-old had reason to be miffed when Howard was signed to a big-money deal and the starting spot, one MacMath had waited patiently for a year to step in to, went up in smoke despite the fact that he was the anchor of the best defense in the league.

“I kind of knew at that time no matter what I was going to do on the field, it was inevitable that he was going to play,” MacMath said back in August. “It’s frustrating, no doubt. A tough couple weeks of adjustment. But at the same time, that’s the name of the game. That’s kind of the business that we play in."

Three months later, MacMath has the nature of the business to thank for a priceless opportunity to prove his worth – and perhaps attract some MLS suitors looking for a 2017 starter. Injuries happen. Now it’s next man up. It’s no exaggeration to say these two games, with a place in MLS Cup on the line, represent the biggest of MacMath’s career.

He’ll have to find his game rhythm quickly for the Rapids to realize their goal of hosting and winning MLS Cup in Commerce City, but MacMath will have the benefit of doing so while wrapped in the best defensive security blanket MLS can offer.

As’s Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle is fond of reminding us, the Rapids are successful defensively not because their goalkeepers do the impossible, but because Pablo Mastroeni’s system, from front to back, makes sure they don’t have to by limiting shot quality. To wit, the Rapids faced the third-fewest shots on goal (130) in MLS this season, and their ratio of shots on target to total shots (31 percent on frame) was the lowest in the league.                                               

And while those numbers must be taken with a grain of contextual salt, the generality still applies: Sure, the Rapids give up shots like everyone else, but fewer of those shots are goal dangerous. So instead of being asked to consistently deliver miracles, Colorado’s goalkeeper must simply do his part. Communicate. Make the easy saves and good decisions. From time to time, come up with something special.

Do all that and, assuming the attack gets a goal or two, results will follow. It’s a formula that’s worked over 36 games in 2016 no matter who has been in goal, and there’s no reason to think it can’t work again against the Sounders.

Here are two more straightforward statistics which Carr’s graphic doesn’t include: MacMath’s record in the 17 games he started (9-3-5, 32 points) was better than Howard’s mark (6-3-8, 26 points) in the same span, and his goals against average of .765 to 1.12 was more than a third of a goal better as well. That'll do in an aggregate series, and if it doesn't over 180 minutes, MacMath is no slouch in penalty kick situations either (nine PK goals allowed in 14 attempts over six years).

Now, that’s not to say MacMath is a better goalkeeper than Howard. He’s struggled to control his area at times during his six-year MLS career, and isn’t immune to the occasional howler, which it goes without saying the Rapids can’t afford with playoff margins razor thin.

But he doesn’t have to be better, faster, stronger or more intimidating. He doesn’t have to be the hero. MacMath just has to be himself. If he does that, the Rapids have no reason to believe their MLS Cup dreams can’t end in a confetti shower on Dec. 10.