Union Notes: MacMath thriving on penalty kicks

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Union Notes: MacMath thriving on penalty kicks

CHESTER, Pa. – Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath doesn’t like penalty kicks and doesn’t think he’s particularly good at stopping them.

Funny, because that’s all he’s done this season.

In what’s been one of the few bright spots of an otherwise dour start to the year for the Union, MacMath has managed to save all three penalty kicks he’s faced -- a rare achievement for any goalie.

The MLS record for penalty kick saves in a single season? Four.

“I’ve known Zac for a long time and I’ve seen him take a lot of PKs, and this has not been his strong suit as a goalkeeper,” Union manager John Hackworth said. “But the good thing is you kind of see Zac evolving. His game has improved in so many little ways that I think it was natural that with his ability to read and his decision-making that he was going to figure it out.”

MacMath’s latest PK save may have been his best one yet. After Amobi Okugo was whistled for a handball in the box in the first half of the Union's 2-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders, MacMath picked his teammate up with a tremendous diving save on Osvaldo Alonso.

“I know there’s talk from the Seattle camp that it was interesting that Alonso took it,” Hackworth said. “But I don’t care who takes that PK. That’s a well-taken PK. For a 'keeper to save that, with that kind of pace and that kind of placement, that’s pretty impressive.”

MacMath’s first two PK saves came in back-to-back games in early April -- against reigning MVP Mike Magee of the Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake’s Alvoro Saborio. The one against Magee was especially impressive because he also thwarted the star forward’s rebound attempt to preserve a tie on the final play of the game, leading MacMath to call it “one of the best moments of my career.”

He’s had other great moments too, and after an up-and-down start to his professional career, MacMath seems to be really hitting his stride this season -- his third as a starter.

He may even be the Union’s best player right now.

“We just need to build off performances like Zac’s,” Hackworth said. “He kept us in a game, a really high-level game on Saturday night. It was an excellent save, and he’s had a very good year. We need other guys to feed off him and have those kinds of performances so that collectively as a team we are more consistent.”

Edu to the World Cup?
Ever since he signed with the Union in the offseason, Maurice Edu has been hounded with questions about how returning to MLS could help him in his quest to make the U.S. national team’s World Cup roster.

And while the Union (1-4-5) are struggling, it’s hasn’t been the fault of Edu, who’s been an effective box-to-box midfielder and is tied for the team lead in goals with two.

So will the Union midfielder make U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s preliminary 30-man roster when it’s announced Monday and then make the plane to Brazil after the roster is trimmed down to 23 for the World Cup?

Hackworth doesn’t know for sure but seems to like Edu’s chances.

“That’s not really a question for me to answer,” Hackworth said. “I would give you my opinion though: If there are soccer people out there, in particular Jurgen and his staff, I think they’re pleased with the way Mo is playing.”

Having a Union player represent the U.S. national team in Brazil would be a great thing for Philadelphia, but it would naturally leave the club shorthanded for a few games heading into the league’s World Cup break.

It will also give other players a chance to step in and fill the void left behind by Edu. Hackworth was asked specifically if one of them could be teenager Zach Pfeffer, who has yet to play a minute this season and is coming off a one-year loan to the German club Hoffenheim.

“Pfeffer is certainly a guy that is a possibility,” the Union manager said. “But he has to put himself in a position to be consistently brought into the 18 and to be considered to have his name listed in the [starting] 11 or be one of the three substitutions off the bench. … I’ve seen a lot of good things out of Zach. I hope that translates into him playing some valuable minutes for this team this season.”

Looking for offensive upgrades
Considering a Union player hasn’t scored from the run of play in the last four games, it’s no secret that the Union could use an offensive boost.

Could that boost come in the form of acquiring a new striker?

“The short answer is yes,” Hackworth said. “But I think in the bigger picture we have a group of guys that are capable of playing at this level and being very successful at this level. We aren’t thinking that we have to hit the panic button and do something drastic like bring in someone else.”

Wait, so was that a yes or a no?

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake continues to rack up the accolades.

A couple of weeks after being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, the rising Philadelphia Union star was named to the MLS Best XI team as one of the league’s top players in 2016.

The rest of the team included:

• Forwards Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), David Villa (New York City FC) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
• Midfielders Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Sacha Kljestan (Red Bulls), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas) and Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
• Defenders Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids) and Jelle Van Damme (Galaxy)

Blake’s inclusion on the Best XI is not a surprise considering he already took home top goalkeeper honors. Even though he didn’t have the best numbers in the league, he made the spectacular look ordinary in his first full season as an MLS starter.

But it is unique for the Union, who haven’t had a player make the Best XI since Sebastien Le Toux was included for his 14-goal, 11-assist effort in Philly's 2010 expansion season.

Union winger Chris Pontius, who recently won the 2016 MLS Breakout Player of the Year award, made Best XI while with D.C. United in 2012. Former Union players to be honored on the prestigious list were Bakary Soumare with Chicago in 2008 and Justin Mapp with Chicago in 2006.

Another big honor like this will likely only increase the chatter that Blake could be sold to a big team in Europe soon. But a couple of weeks ago, the Union goalkeeper insisted his only focus for 2017 is on Philadelphia.

“From a personal standpoint, I’m hoping to have an even better season than 2016,” he said at the time. “To be able to go in and be consistent and do everything I can for the Union — and maybe be the goalkeeper to get them their first [MLS] Cup.”

Bruce Arena rehired as U.S. soccer coach to replace Jurgen Klinsmann

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The Associated Press

Bruce Arena rehired as U.S. soccer coach to replace Jurgen Klinsmann

NEW YORK -- Bruce Arena is returning to coach the U.S. national soccer team, a decade after he was fired.

The winningest coach in American national team history, Arena took over Tuesday, one day after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired. The 65-year-old Arena starts work Dec. 1.

With the U.S. 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time, the U.S. Soccer Federation wants to spark a turnaround when competition resumes March 24 with a home game against Honduras followed four days later with a match at Panama.

"We need to build the chemistry of this team and have a common goal and really work on a team concept," Arena said during a telephone news conference. "I really believe individually and positionally we have good players and we've just got to get them working together as a team.

"There are no real secrets on how you build good teams: It takes a lot of hard work, it takes communication, it takes discipline and it takes some talent, and I think we have enough talent to build a good team and end up in Russia 2018. It's going to take a little time, a little bit patience and a lot of hard work."

Arena first took over as national team coach after the 1998 World Cup and led the U.S. to a 71-30-29 record. His contract runs through the 2018 World Cup.

"I don't view it as Bruce 2, but sort of Bruce 2.0," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. "I think he's got far more experience than he did when he had the national team the first go-round. He's proven and reproven many times at all levels of the game in the United States that he's an extraordinarily capable and successful coach."

A wisecracking Brooklynite known for blunt talk and sarcasm, Arena coached the University of Virginia to five NCAA titles from 1978-95, then led D.C. United to titles in Major League Soccer's first two seasons before losing in the 1998 final. He guided the Americans to the team's best World Cup finish since 1930, a 1-0 loss to Germany in the 2002 quarterfinals.

Arena was let go after the team's first-round elimination by Ghana in 2006. He coached the New York Red Bulls of MLS from July 2006 to November 2007, then was hired the following August by the Galaxy. He led the team to MLS titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014.

Arena was inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2010.

"I think 10 years later I'm better prepared for this job than I was in 1998 and 2002 and ultimately 2006, so I'm hopeful the experiences I had are going to benefit the program," he said. "One of the things you learn from experience is you see things a lot clearer and a lot quicker than you did previously, and the game has slowed down a bit, where I can see as a coach in my position how things are happening on the field.