Play-by-Play Plus: MacMath becoming the goalkeeper many thought he could be...at the perfect time

Union keeper Zac MacMath peaking at the perfect time

The goalkeeping position in soccer is much like the quarterback position in the NFL.

At times, the keeper gets too much credit for a win, and too much blame for a loss. While defense is a team game, the goals against average, wins, draws, losses, and shutouts show up big as a goalkeeping stat. At one time, those numbers held by young Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath were not flattering.

Right now, the numbers for MacMath are good and getting better, at the perfect time – with this stretch drive towards the playoffs.

If the 22-year-old can keep these recent numbers, then the Philadelphia Union can and will qualify for one of the five playoff spots in MLS’ Eastern Conference.

With nine games remaining, the team sits in fourth place in the competitive Eastern Conference. The club's next test is Sunday at New England (7:30 p.m., Comcast SportsNet).

Here are some of the reasons for the improved play of MacMath:

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

In sports, it's all about the reps. Mac Math is a fresh faced, just turned 22-year-old keeper who is only in his third season. He was rushed into the No. 1 spot in the 2012 season when Faryd Mondragon returned to Colombia on relatively short notice. In his first year as a starter he was able to see the highs and lows from his spot in goal. In year No. 2 as a starter he has also seen those highs and lows.

The lows include giving up four goals to the Los Angeles Galaxy, followed two games later by five goals against versus the Montreal Impact.

But the highs are four shutouts in his last five games. Furthermore, MacMath has cut his goals against average in half over the last 10 games.

Familiar faces

With the exception of a Jeff Parke and Raymon Gaddis injury and a one-game suspension to Sheanon Williams, the back four has pretty much stayed intact this season along with defensive midfielder Brian Carroll. It takes time to gel with a back four. Only Sheanon Williams was a starter at right back for the entire 2012 season. Okugo became a regular when John Hackworth replaced Peter Nowak as the club manager.

So at the start of the 2013 campaign MacMath and the back four was not an experienced unit in terms of playing together.

Oka Nikolov

Even though he has not played in an MLS game, the signing of Nikolov to me is the biggest reason for MacMath's improvement. When Nikolov arrived he was not ready to compete for a starting job because he had not played in a league game in a few months.

However, one look at his resume and one would think that at some point, he would definitely compete for minutes in goal. I'm a believer that competition brings about the best in people, and I think this is the case here.

Even if Zac is supremely confident, when you and the team are conceding too many goals, and a very experienced goalkeeper is brought in, it would have to make you wonder about job security.

Before the Nikolov signing, MacMath's goals against average were 1.60. After the signing of the German keeper, his GAA over 10 games is .008, dropping his season number to 1.29.

Coincidence?

That's not what I'm thinking. While I believe the reps and familiarity with the back four are a part of the improvement, I do feel that the Nikolov signing is the biggest factor.

MacMath is a very talented young goalkeeper who has had to experience a lot in his three years as a pro. He is currently among the league leaders now with nine shutouts. With 20 shutouts in his career, he is the youngest goalkeeper in MLS history to achieve that milestone. He's one win away from 11 which would beat his personal best of 10 from last season.

 He's still young and learning, so no one is making a claim that at the present time that he could rival the league's top keepers like Nick Rimando, Jimmy Nielsen and Donovan Ricketts, but those guys are all 10 plus years older than MacMath.

Over the next nine games he'll experience more highs and lows.

If those highs can outweigh the lows, the Union will benefit and most likely return to the playoffs.