CHESTER, Pa. – Changes are incoming for the struggling Philadelphia Union, and they're starting in goal.
On Wednesday, Union head coach Jim Curtin announced his decision to bench Rais Mbolhi for the foreseeable future, adding that he told the former World Cup star to take time away from the team. Curtin gave no timetable on his return but said afterwards that Mbolhi is currently in France, where he lives in the offseason.
Curtin said that John McCarthy, the 2014 USL PRO Goalkeeper of the Year, will start Saturday’s game vs. New York City FC at PPL Park (4 pm ET; MLS Live). Former top overall SuperDraft pick Andre Blake, who’s still on the mend from February knee surgery, will back him up.
“It was my decision and it was based on performance,” Curtin said. “It’s what I think is best now for Rais and the Philadelphia Union moving forward. … [And] it’s best for him and the team that he’s not with the group.”
If this is the end to Mbolhi’s tenure in Philly, it’s fair to say it was a disastrous one. Brought in last summer after a starring role for Algeria at the 2014 World Cup, the high-priced acquisition made only four appearances in 2014 due in part to his national team commitments but still managed to produce perhaps the lasting image of a disappointing season. His crucial gaffe vs. the Chicago Fire in an October game doomed Philly’s playoff hopes.
And after five games in 2015, Mbolhi ranks dead last among MLS starters in save percentage (50) and goals against (nine). Last week’s 3-2 loss to Sporting Kansas City was probably the low point as the Algerian allowed three goals off restarts and looked very shaky commanding the box.
“We win and lose games as a team but as the KC game went on, throw-in after throw-in went into the box, there seemed to be indecision with Rais,” Curtin said. “I just think – and I talked to him yesterday about it – that he doesn’t seem like himself. He didn’t seem like the goalkeeper that was winning us games in the preseason, singlehandedly. I think the confidence is gone in him.”
Mbolhi’s body language also hasn’t been particularly good at training or in games, and he’s been caught on camera yelling at teammates and the refs. But Curtin said the decision was based solely on his performance and that the Algerian simply wasn’t living up to the “bigger expectations” that come along with his hefty salary and wasn’t providing the “calming presence” that the team needed from a World Cup veteran.
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“When I sit down and talk to him, he is a smart, intelligent guy,” the Union coach said. “He is a pro. He did mention he can’t guarantee how he reacts to this because it’s the first time he’s been benched. He’ll take some time away, reflect on some things – things he can do better, things he can improve on, just like I do when we lose. … He’s an experienced player who we needed to rise to the moment and win us games. And right now, that’s not happening.”
Curtin didn’t want to talk publicly about any potential plans to sell Mbolhi. But it’s clear that his days with the Union could be numbered and that Philly’s goalkeeping merry-go-round will continue.
“It’s like the famous Mike Tyson line: ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,’” Curtin said. “You have to adjust. This is the first step in the adjusting. I think it’s what’s best for the team, and I think we have to move on as a group and get that first win.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.