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CHESTER, Pa. – Ever since Faryd Mondragón left town following one all-star season in 2011, the Union have been missing what many great soccer teams possess: a veteran goalkeeper.
That noticeable void has been partially tempered by the promise of Zac MacMath, who’s played every minute in net since last May and has drawn consistent praise from manager John Hackworth – even if MacMath has been as inconsistent as you might expect from a 21-year-old starter.
But for the first time since the 41-year-old Mondragón returned to his native Colombia 17 months ago, the Union now have another veteran ’keeper who once starred in Europe on their roster.
On Wednesday, the club announced the signing of the 39-year-old Oka Nikolov, who played nearly two decades with Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga, Germany’s prestigious top-flight league.
“We’re really excited we have our first summer signing in Oka,” Hackworth said during his weekly conference Wednesday. “He is, first and foremost, a fantastic person, which is something we believe very strongly in for the people we bring to our club. And I’m impressed with him as much as a person as much as I am with his playing record. The fact that he was at Eintracht Frankfurt for so long and is in high regard there says volumes about him as a person and a player.”
What Nikolov is like “as a person” is particularly important because he isn’t coming here to unseat MacMath and be the No. 1 guy, like Mondragón was in 2011. Instead, the 39-year-old will serve as a mentor to both MacMath and backup Chris Konopka, helping them both to become better goalkeepers.
At least that’s the idea.
“Both Zac and Chris are two guys we believe very strongly in,” Hackworth said. “But it’s going to help to have someone with Oka’s experience to push those two players not only in training but to really push them for playing time. The reason he’s coming here is truly to share the experience and leadership that he has.”
Hackworth, who added that MacMath will “absolutely 100 percent” remain the starter, said he’s talked to both MacMath and Konopka about the new addition to the goalkeeping corps and that they weren’t too surprised by it. In fact, this was a move Hackworth wanted to make in the preseason, which is the main reason why he’s only kept two goalies on the roster (as opposed to three, like most MLS teams) for the first four months of the season.
“They completely understood,” Hackworth said. “They knew we were looking for this situation in the offseason going into the preseason. We’ve been very honest with them. I think they get it. It doesn’t change the fact that they’ll have to up their games a little bit in a lot of ways.”
While both MacMath and Konopka might feel more pressure with a well-known goalie pushing them for playing time, Hackworth doesn’t believe they need to get overly worried.
The Union manager said that Nikolov still has to “prove himself” to earn time and that he’ll have to show a lot to unseat MacMath, who Hackworth has always believed is the future of the franchise.
“The most important thing with young players is you give them time and you give them the belief and you put a lot of trust in those players,” the Union manager said. “And we certainly have full trust in Zac and Chris. But we also know in order for them to reach their potential they have to be pushed in the right ways. And sometimes that has to come from within the team.”
Nikolov won’t start pushing those players right away. Because of the league’s summer transfer window rules, Hackworth said that the Macedonia-born goalkeeper won’t be available to suit up for Philly until the team’s game against Chivas USA on July 12 at PPL Park.
But waiting a few more weeks isn’t much when you consider that the Union have been interested in Nikolov for, according to Hackworth, “months and months, almost years.”
Nikolov, too, has been interested in coming to the United States for a while and hopes to now finish his illustrious career in MLS – even if it’s in a reserve capacity.
“One of the things I was impressed about is he has a high regard for the league and he’s followed our league so closely,” Hackworth said. “The process was a long one but ultimately we were able to work it out.”