CHESTER, Pa. – A day before the Philadelphia Union were set to take on FC Schalke 04 in an international friendly at PPL Park, Philly’s third-string goalkeeper Chris Konopka let in a soft goal in training.
As soon as he saw the ball go by him, he knew he made a mistake.
“I basically curled into a ball,” Konopka said. “I made myself small. The first thing I had to get into my head was to keep myself big. I’m a big guy. I’m 6-foot-5. The more I make myself big, the less they have to shoot at the goal.”
Given the chance to play a full half against a Bundesliga power on Wednesday, Konopka certainly rose to the occasion, making a couple of big saves to help lead the Union to a 2-1 win.
Konopka’s effort, combined with a strong first-half performance from second-string ’keeper Chase Harrison (above), was a promising development for the Union (2-5-1) heading into Sunday’s key game against the rival Red Bulls at PPL Park (12:30 pm ET, ESPN2, LIVE CHAT on MLSsoccer.com). That’s because the status of Zac MacMath is uncertain after the starting goalkeeper took a blow to the head in last week’s loss to Seattle.
“That’s so important for those guys to get some game time before having to step into a situation like that,” Union assistant coach John Hackworth said of the possibility of either Harrison or Konopka playing against the Red Bulls. “But again, we’ve got to evaluate everything and take it day by day and see if Zac can come back.”
Professional journeyman both, the 28-year-old Harrison and the 27-year-old Konopka have made just one official league appearance between them. Both players say they are comfortable backing up the 20-year-old MacMath – who has come on strong over the past month-and-half – but are also eager to showcase their abilities when given the chance.
“Goalkeeping is a really tough position because only one guy gets to play,” Konopka said. “Luckily myself and Chase split the game [against Schalke], and I think both of us showed that if anything happens to Zac, the two of us are capable of stepping in and doing the job for the team.”
If that time comes to step in Sunday, it will certainly be a daunting task for either player. Led by two of the league’s top goalscorers in Thierry Henry, who is expected to miss the match through injury, and Kenny Cooper, the dynamic Red Bulls (6-3-1) are tied for second in the league with 20 goals.
But both of Philly’s backup goalkeepers say they’ll be ready – thanks, in large part, to the experience gained in Wednesday’s friendly vs. Schalke.
“Any time you do well, it helps to continue to build your confidence,” Harrison said. “Hopefully we portrayed that if something does happen [to MacMath] that we’ll be up for the challenge and get the job done.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.