CHESTER, Pa. – When the Philadelphia Union announced the signing of Bundesliga goalkeeping veteran Oka Nikolov earlier Wednesday, some people might have figured Philly goalkeeper Zac MacMath's days as a starter were numbered.
But just a few hours after the move was made official, Union manager John Hackworth stated that’s not the case. And he did so quite emphatically.
“Zac is absolutely 100 percent still the starter,” Hackworth said during his weekly press conference Wednesday. “No question about that.”
What the 39-year-old Nikolov will do, Hackworth noted, is be a mentor to the 21-year-old MacMath, as well as to second-stringer Chris Konopka, and share the “experience and leadership” he honed while playing for Eintracht Frankfurt for close to two decades. And while he certainly will push for the starting job, the Union manager doesn’t think MacMath needs to be nervously looking over his shoulder.
“If I fly him in and the next game I start him, yeah if I were Zac I’d be pretty rattled about it,” Hackworth said. “But that’s not the way we will approach this at all. Zac knows the situation. He knows he’s still the No. 1. He knows we believe in him, we trust in him and we know that long-term he’s going to have as illustrious of a career as Oka has had.”
Similar to what he said after bringing in Brazilian midfielder Kléberson three months ago, Hackworth noted that Nikolov must “prove himself” before earning minutes, even if his résumé speaks for itself. And even then, he’ll have to do extremely well in training to surpass MacMath, who’s played every minute for the Union since Hackworth took over as manager last June.
Hackworth anticipates Nikolov will first be available for Philly’s home game against Chivas USA on July 12, three days after the summer transfer window officially opens.
“He’s going to have to do an awful lot in our coach’s staff opinion to unseat our whole feeling of the potential of Zac MacMath and how good he is and how good he can be,” Hackworth said.
But even if the new ’keeper is mostly used as a mentor and backup, Hackworth said Nikolov has told him he's still excited to finish his career in MLS, something he’s wanted to do for a while.
“I think he understands that and knows exactly why he’s coming here,” Hackworth said. “And I think he’s accepted that role wholeheartedly.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.