Wayne, Pa. – Up until a few days ago, goalkeeper Zac MacMath expected to enter the 2012 season as a back-up for the second consecutive year.
Now, with Faryd Mondragón's decision to return to Deportivo Cali, MacMath's role has changed, as the 20-year-old has been elevated into the No. 1 slot.
“It means a lot,” MacMath said after Wednesday’s training session at YSC Sports in Wayne. “It shows that [manager Peter Nowak] trusts me with the team being the No. 1 goalkeeper. I think it just goes to show how much he is committed to the future of the team and developing me as a starter.”
MacMath went undefeated (3-0-4) with a 1.07 goals against average in seven starts when Mondragón broke his finger on September 3. More than the statistics, MacMath showed remarkable maturity for a rookie, especially when he allowed four goals in his initial start against New England. He remained poised and the Union rallied for an improbable 4-4 draw.
From there, MacMath’s confidence soared.
That confidence increased recently when he was called up for a pair of U-23 training camps in preparation for Olympic qualifying. If MacMath gets the call from U-23 coach Caleb Porter – and the U.S. qualifies for the Olympics – the Union will need a part-time replacement.
But that’s a story for another day.
For now, the whirlwind has seen MacMath drafted fifth overall from the University of Maryland in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, thrust into a starting role when Mondragón got hurt and now moved into a full-time starting spot.
“It’s been great,” MacMath said. “We always thought it was an ideal situation with me going in and Mondi being here for another two or three years and kind of learning and developing a little bit. Obviously, him leaving early was a little bit of a surprise. I’m obviously very happy with the way it worked out being a starter.”
Mondragón was the Union’s lone All-Star representative last season. He was also a mentor to MacMath.
Those lessons learned will never be forgotten.
Before Mondragón packed to go back home, the two had a nice chat on the phone.
“We just talked for a little bit,” MacMath said. “He told me his reasons for wanting to go back to Colombia and obviously, I’m in full support of him and his family. He just told me to keep pushing and to relax – don’t put too much pressure on yourself and enjoy it. He said, ‘just do like you did last year.’ He told me I was ready.”
Those 675 minutes and seven starts last season were enough to impress the technical staff.
When Mondragón left, there was a natural progression to hand the reins to MacMath.
“The burden is big, yeah, but I think he can handle it without any problem,” said Union manager Peter Nowak, who has known MacMath since he was 11 years old. “There’s not going to be any problem and there’s not going to be any question who is No. 1.”
MacMath’s strong play last season when Mondragón went down had a lasting effect. But even before his successful trial-by-fire, the Union liked everything about MacMath when they selected him in the SuperDraft.
It’s just that his timetable has been pushed up.
“He knows the drill,” Nowak said. “He knows the responsibility and I don’t see any kind of obstacles that he’s not going to continue that progress. I think he’s the kind of player who steps on the ground strong. He knows the reality. He knows who he is.”
The Union allowed fewer shots on goal per game last season than any club in MLS history.
The players in front of MacMath, specifically the defenders, saw a player develop at lightning-quick speed. They believe that development will continue in 2012.
“I’m really excited,” said defender Danny Califf, who will be the club’s captain for the second time in three seasons, taking the armband back from Mondragón. “I think Zac’s got a huge upside. He was helped last year that he got those games under his belt. I can’t see any reason why he’s not going to be as good as he was last year. Faryd did a great job and was an incredible leader.
“Zac’s a young kid, he moves better and he’s the future. Mondi’s got those intangibles you just can’t teach. Zac’s got that youthful enthusiasm.”
Midfielder Brian Carroll echoed similar thoughts.
“I have full faith he’ll be able to build upon that (experience last year) and surpass that this season,” Carroll said.
With the full backing of his manager and teammates, MacMath is eager to grab hold of the starting role and never look back.
"I’m ready and I’m excited,” he said.