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?

Will Keegan Rosenberry's benching spark second-year Union defender?

Will Keegan Rosenberry's benching spark second-year Union defender?

CHESTER, Pa. — Over the years, there have been few certainties for the Union, a franchise often in flux. But since the start of the 2016 season, there was at least one: Keegan Rosenberry.

The right back played every minute of his rookie season last year — the only player in MLS to do so — while earning spots in the MLS All-Star game and last January’s U.S. national team camp. And through the first six games of 2017, he once again never came off the field.

But with the team sputtering and Rosenberry not playing as well as he did as a rookie, Union head coach Jim Curtin benched last year’s MLS Rookie of the Year finalist for this past Saturday’s game vs. Montreal.

The Union defense didn’t get any better, giving up three unanswered goals in a brutal 3-3 draw with the Impact. But Curtin hopes the benching could be the spark Rosenberry needs to return to form and regain his place in the starting lineup, possibly for this Saturday’s road tilt against the star-studded LA Galaxy (10:30 p.m., TCN).

“Keegan is obviously a great player for us — a guy who played a ton of minutes, a guy who had never missed a minute since he’s been here,” Curtin said. “I thought it was important for him. He’s been a little caught in two minds between the attack and defending, and maybe lacking a little bit of confidence. At the same time, he was giving maximum effort.

“I had a talk with him. It’s a hard decision but I decided in some instances it’s good … to sit back and watch. That sounds like a coach talking, but I have been in those moments and you’re disappointed as a player to watch, but it also can re-light a little bit of a fire.”

It helps, too, when the replacement is Ray Gaddis, the club’s second longest-tenured player and someone with over 100 MLS starts to his name. And even though he was relegated to a reserve role last year after being a starter for the three seasons before that, Gaddis is never someone who needs to be reminded to stay ready.

“We have a saying in our family, ‘You stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,’” Gaddis said. “It’s not that hard when you have good teammates. It’s a testament to them. They’re pushing me every week in training, and I approach every practice session like it’s a game.”

Considering the Union allowed three goals last weekend, no defender received many plaudits after the game. But none of the goals were really the fault of Gaddis, who showed the same kind of speed and defensive ability that has made him a successful MLS player.

“Ray had a good game,” Curtin said. “Ray did a really good job in his defending, gave us some really good 1 v. 1 defending winning his duels. It’s not easy for a guy who’s been out and has not played 90 in a while to go through the physicality of that. But he emptied his tank, gave everything for the shirt, which he always does. I think he’s one of the best 1 v. 1 defenders that our league has.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of Philly’s backline setup was that Gaddis played alongside rookie Jack Elliott, marking the second time in MLS history that two West Virginia University alums started the same match. That was a cool thing for Gaddis, who’s tried to help bring Elliott up to speed after the London-born center back was taken in the fourth round of this year’s draft.

“He’s a humble kid like myself, and that’s what I like about him,” Gaddis said. “He plays hard and that’s what our university produces — hard workers.

“I’m a team-first guy,” he added. “I’m looking at my teammates. They’re looking at me and I’ve been here a while. They’re looking for a push. They’re looking for some cohesion in the back to bring us together. And i feel like I’ve been here a while, so [I can] be a leader on and off the field.”

While Gaddis is certainly an important contributor to this team, he may not stay in the starting lineup for long. Rosenberry remains one of the team’s brightest young stars and may get his job back this weekend vs. the Galaxy — a team he scored his first MLS goal on in last season’s matchup.

“If we’re going to get out of this thing — and Keegan and I have talked about it — he’s going to be a big part of us fighting our way out of it,” Curtin said. “He’s still an important player for us, a very good outside back in this league. And right now, we’re trying to find the right pieces of the puzzle to get that first win.”

Fragile Union doomed to draw with Impact by 'soft defense'

Fragile Union doomed to draw with Impact by 'soft defense'

CHESTER, Pa. -- For 46 minutes, the Union suffered in slow motion. 

After claiming an impressive 3-0 lead, the winless club allowed unanswered goals in the 41st, 69th and 87th minute, as they gradually deteriorated against the Montreal Impact on Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium (see Game Recap).

"It feels like a loss," Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. "It's hard to stomach."

The decline started with Ignacio Piatti. With his club trailing by three, the Impact's most dangerous player sliced through the Union midfield and took advantage of sagging Union defenders, reached the top of the box and fired off a low shot that beat Andre Blake.

"We let up a soft goal with Piatti coming inside," Bedoya said. "I probably should have fouled him first. Chris [Pontius] could have fouled him. We didn't step up in time."

The goal lit a fire under the Impact. It was a momentum-turner that gave the visitors life and squashed the Union's morale, setting in motion a crushing second half. 

"Goals change games," said Union manager Jim Curtin, whose club, led by goals from C.J. Sapong and Roland Alberg dominated the early portion of the first half. "The one before half gives them a little bit of life, a little bit of hope that it's not just going to be a day where they lay down. They continued to fight."

If the fragile Union weren't panicking at the half, they certainly began to tense up in the 69th minute, when a left-side cross from Ambroise Oyongo allowed Anthony Jackson-Hamel to beat Richie Marquez to the inside for the header. 

"It was truly one where you can say they made a good play," Curtin said. "It's a very good cross, a good header where the guy gets in between the center backs. You can tip your cap and say that's a good goal."

Bedoya thought it was a case of soft defense.

"If you keep dropping back and play soft defense and allow second balls in the box, and don't put bodies on guys in the box, you get punished," Bedoya said. "That's what happened to us today."

Eighteen minutes later, the Union were crushed. Jackson-Hamel scored his second and tied the match when a Matteo Mancuso bounce shot hit the hands of Andre Blake and dribbled into the goal. The Impact attacker caught Union defender Jack Elliott ball watching and punished Blake for the gaffe with an easy goal off the rebound.

The collapse was complete.

"We had enough guys in the box, you can see there was five defenders in the box," Curtin said. "The guy shoots from outside the box, it takes a skip and it's a tough hop for Andre. We had enough guys behind the ball, it's about making individual plays. That is killing us right now."