BRIDEVIEW, IL - JUNE 05: Head coach Peter Nowak of the Philadelphia Union talks to reserves on the bench before an MLS match against the Chicago Fire on June 5, 2010 at Toyota Park in Brideview, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Were the Philadelphia Union and head coach Piotr Nowak smart or foolish in drafting University of Maryland star goalkeeper Zac MacMath? Scott Kessler takes a look at the Nowak's goalkeeping strategy for the Union now and in the future.
The majority of reactions to Piotr Nowak and the Philadelphia Union choosing 19-year-old University of Maryland goalkeeper Zac MacMath, with the fifth overall pick of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, was one of shock and amazement. Looking around at the press section of the hall there were visible looks of bewilderment after the USMNT under-20 star began his walk to the podium. By the time that MacMath, also one of the 10 Generation Adidas signees for the draft, started his speech and thanked the Sons of Ben, those same writers had already turned away, back to their laptops. The pitter-patter of typing fluttered amongst the section as I made my way to the interview area.
My initial reaction was that of shock. After all of the Faryd Mondragon speculation and the problems with Chris Seitz there was little doubt in my mind as to whether or not Nowak would draft MacMath - he wouldn't. Two weeks to the draft was the last time MacMath was even a thought for the Union, for me. But by the end of the draft that feeling had dissipated.
Nowak has a plan.
By this time next week, the Union will have announced Mondragon as a Union player. This time next week MacMath will be all but officially third on the goalkeeper depth chart. There's nothing wrong with that. Nowak is properly prepared for MacMath's development, as opposed to his plans last season with MacMath's former Maryland teammate, Chris Seitz.
In 2011 the Union and the rest of the MLS will utilize the rebirthed reserve league, something that leagues throughout the world use to keep top talent playing prior to moving them fully up to the first team. Players like Toni Stahl, Kyle Nakazawa, Jack McInerney, J.T. Noone, Brian Perk, Amobi Okugo and Andrew Jacobson would have benefited greatly from the ability to continue to play regularly last season. Luckily for MacMath, Michael Farfan and Levi Houapeu, draft picks from this year's MLS SuperDraft, the MLS decided to reinstate the reserve leagues and increase the roster size to 30 in order to make room for six under-24 designated spots.
The selection of MacMath shows that Nowak is unafraid of past failure and is looking to sure up the future of the team. Far and away the best goalkeeper in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, MacMath is only 19 years old. Starring for three years at Maryland, the young MacMath managed to amiably fill the large gap left by Seitz in goal at the university and created a legend of his own.
Nowak has decided to go the route of the Philadelphia Flyers but has his depth chart properly planned out. A starter (Mondragon), a career backup who has proven that he can start when needed (Knighton) and a young goalkeeper that could play now but is better served learning from experienced teammates.
By signing Mondragon and hanging onto Knighton, Nowak has given MacMath a great ability to succeed with the Union. Mondragon is an exceptional choice to teach MacMath how to be a professional goalkeeper. The 39, soon-to-be-40-year-old Mondragon has started at the highest levels in both Europe and internationally. Years of play in the German Bundesliga, Turkey and Argentina proved that Mondragon can play with the best in the world of club soccer. His time with the Colombian national team has shown his ability to play at the top international level.
Mondragon gives the Union a goalkeeper who is notorious for his ability to bark at the defenders in front of him. He's an aggressive goalkeeper, both in his play and with his mouth, something that is vitally important to the growth of MacMath as a professional goalkeeper. The ability to manage players that could be as much as two times as old as him is something that MacMath needs to be able to do to succeed in the MLS.
Having a goalkeeper that can keep a team in a match is a luxury that the Union have yet to experience. With a defense that gave Seitz and Knighton little to be happy about until the last eight or so games last season, a goalkeeper that can handle porous support is necessary for success. In the short term that goalkeeper is Mondragon. He will not take lazy or lackadaisical defending; his mouth will let the four teammates in front of him know that they have done wrong. Though MacMath's play this season will come mostly in the reserve league, his time with the first team will be of vital importance in learning the tools of the trade from Mondragon. If the Union do not go out and acquire any one of note to change the defense, then MacMath's eyes and ears should find themselves constantly set upon Mondragon whenever a game is played. This season will show MacMath what it is like to face the hardships of the professional world. He has a lot of information to process at the young age of 19.
No matter what Nowak has been accused of doing with Seitz and Knight - being too trusting, not trusting enough, throwing away talent too early, not equipping his youth with the ability to succeed - it must be said that he has shored up the goalkeeper position for now and years to come. Though he made mistakes with Seitz last season it appears that he has learned from them and is trying to give MacMath the chance to succeed at the professional level. By not rushing the young goalkeeper and putting experience goalkeepers around him, while allowing him to play in the reserve league, Nowak will provide the Union with probably the best goalkeeping situation a club could want. Union fans should look forward to a Colombian great barking out orders for the next two years before watching a franchise goalkeeper taking over to lead the team for a long time.