WAYNE, Pa. – Peter Nowak knew the question was coming.
“That’s going to be a hot topic right now, huh?” the Philadelphia Union manager said recently when about the club’s goalkeeper situation. “For the next 12 months, right?”
Yes, it almost certainly will be.
With 2011 captain Faryd Mondragón's departure to Colombia, Zac MacMath will take over the starting role in 2012. And while no one can deny MacMath’s talent, there are some people that may question if a 20-year-old in just his second professional season can lead a team on a deep playoff run.
Nowak is not one of those people.
“The burden is big but I think he will handle it without any problems,” the Union manager said. “And there’s not going to be any speculation about who’s No. 1. I think it’s important for him to know the whole team is behind him.”
Nowak has a lot of faith in MacMath because he’s known him since the goalkeeper was 11 years old. And in that time, the manager has seen him combine the perfect blend of skill and maturity, which allowed him to star at the University of Maryland and at the international level.
That’s why the Union made MacMath their top selection in the 2011 SuperDraft and that’s why Nowak is comfortable handing over the starting goalkeeping spot to him now, even though the young ’keeper has only eight MLS appearances under his belt.
“Peter and I have known each other for a very long time,” said MacMath, who was unbeaten in seven starts last season. “Knowing him that long, we have trust in each other. I have trust in him with this decision and he trusted me in goal. Taking that trust and building on it even more will be good for everyone.”
Before Mondragón left the club, MacMath said the veteran Colombian told him that he was ready to take over. MacMath believes he’s ready, too, and so do his teammates.
“I think Zac’s got a huge upside,” said defender Danny Califf, who will take over as captain this season. “I think he really helped us last year, and I can’t see any reason why he won’t be as good as he was last year. So it’s going to be exciting. Faryd did a great job and was an incredible leader, but Zac’s a young kid and he moves better. He’s the future. Mondi’s got those intangibles you just can’t teach, but Zac’s got the youthful enthusiasm.”
The leadership Mondragón brought last season was indeed invaluable and probably one of the biggest reasons for the Union’s improvement from 2010, when they had two less experienced 'keepers in Chris Seitz and Brad Knighton manning the net.
But when asked if the team is planning to bring in a more seasoned goalie for the upcoming season, Nowak dismissed the idea, perhaps because of his faith in MacMath. Instead, he indicated the team will likely retain 27-year-old Chase Harrison and 26-year-old Chris Konopka – both of whom have been training with the club this preseason – for the second- and third-string roles.
Harrison and Konopka have each bounced around the league and have only one official MLS appearance between them.
“Why do I need to bring in a veteran?” Nowak said. “I don’t think that’s necessary right now to even think about that.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Philadelphia Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org