The Zac MacMath era appears to have begun sooner than anyone anticipated.
With Monday's news that 2011 starting goalkeeper and captain Faryd Mondragón is returning to Deportivo Cali to finish his career where it began, the door has been opened for Philadelphia's 2011 first-round draft pick (fifth overall).
Fortunately for Philadelphia, MacMath was forced into a starting role for seven starts last season and passed the test with flying colors. That experience, a result of Mondragón's broken finger, should pay dividends for the Union in 2012.
So should MacMath's considerable talent. The 20-year-old was one of the most dominant goalkeepers in NCAA history with the University of Maryland and boasts extensive experience with US youth national teams. MacMath has been called up for two recent U-23 training camps in preparation for Olympic qualifiying in March, which speaks to his ability but also presents an issue for the Union.
If MacMath continues to be called in by U-23 head coach Caleb Porter, and should the US successfully qualify for the Olympics, the Union will be forced to find a part-time starter for a sizable chunk of the season. The lack of goalkeeper depth on the Union's roster – MacMath now stands as the lone 'keeper – means the club will likely sign at least two other options at the position. Philadelphia carried three goalkeepers for the majority of the 2011 season.
While the loss of the club's lone 2011 MLS All-Star would appear to sting on the surface, MacMath's presence softens the blow. It's true that Mondragón's leadership and ability to organize the defense helped the Union transform an inconsistent 2010 back line into one of the league's top units in 2011. It's also true that after a rough 45 minutes in MacMath's first start in which New England scored four goals – none due to MacMath mistakes – Philadelphia proceeded to concede only four goals in the subsequent 585 minutes, the equivalent of a sparkling 0.62 goals against average.
For all of Mondragón's strengths, he wasn't an elite pure shot-stopper last season, as evidenced by his 0.62 save percentage, worst in the league among regular starters. Then again, Mondragón's 1.09 GAA was tops in MLS among regular starters aside from LA's combination of Donovan Ricketts and Josh Saunders.
MacMath's GAA in eight appearances? 1.07.
Still, the Union are losing a strong voice both in the locker room and on the field, one that helped Philadelphia concede fewer shots on goal per game in 2011 than any team in MLS history. The World Cup veteran finished behind only Kasey Keller in Goalkeeper of the Year voting in his only MLS season.
"It has been an absolute honor and a privilege to be part of the Union family,” Mondragón said in a press release. “My time in Philadelphia has proven to be unforgettable, and I am tremendously proud of having led the team for what proved to be a successful 2011. We achieved most of our goals and continued the club's growth into becoming the best club in MLS.
"For family reasons, I have requested the club to allow me the opportunity to finish my career where it started. I am extremely thankful with our fans, especially Sons of Ben, the best fans in MLS, our ownership, technical staff, my teammates and everyone in the city of Philadelphia who always made me feel at home and made the 2011 season one I will never forget. I look forward to coming back to PPL Park as an avid fan and part of the Union family. I wish the club continued success.”
The 40-year-old Mondragón has enjoyed an illustrious career in a number of the world's top leagues, and shouldn't be faulted for making a decision that he deems to be in the best interest of his family. Sometimes, there truly is no place like home.
“We’d like to thank Faryd for his service to our team and his incredible leadership last season,” said manager Peter Nowak. “We understand that family is important above all else and we decided that it was of the utmost importance to grant him his request of finishing his career with his childhood club. We wish him the best of luck as he ends his career at Deportivo Cali, the club where he started his career.”
MacMath surely understands the opportunity presented to him. The former protégé's first instinct upon hearing the news, however, was to acknowledge his year-long mentor.
"Wants to thank @FarydMondragon for all he has done this past year for me personally and for the club. Great person and athlete #thankyou," MacMath tweeted shortly after the announcement.
With the help of a formidable defense returning all four 2011 starters – plus the signing of Porfirio Lopez, who will compete with Gabriel Farfan for the starting left back role – the time is now for MacMath. A bit sooner than anyone expected, sure, but MacMath's accomplishments to date suggest he's up for the challenge.