CHESTER, Pa. – Zac MacMath doesn’t know what to expect anymore.
This past Friday, for the first time since becoming the Philadelphia Union’s starting goalkeeper in 2012, MacMath was benched for a league game, as rookie Andre Blake got the start in his place.
And that surprising move came in the midst of Philly’s high-profile new signee Rais M'Bolhi continuing to work toward his MLS debut, at which point he will supplant MacMath as the starting goalkeeper.
“It’s kind of become a certainty of uncertainty, so I’ve kind of gotten used to not knowing what’s going to happen each week,” MacMath told reporters following Wednesday’s practice. “But I’m preparing the same as I would if I was going to be the starter each and every week.”
Here’s one thing that does seem certain (or at least as close to certain as the Union can get at this point): MacMath will start in net for Sunday’s critical game against the San Jose Earthquakes at PPL Park (8 p.m., Comcast SportsNet).
In his weekly press conference Wednesday, Curtin said that Blake was only given the start against Houston on Friday because he saw “a window there where emotionally Zac’s been through a lot and physically Zac’s been through a lot.” And while he was pleased with how Blake played in the 2-0 loss, he’s ready to hand the keys back to MacMath, who last Tuesday made two shootout saves to lift the Union past FC Dallas and into the U.S. Open Cup championship game.
“Zac’s been a pro,” Curtin said. “I’ve talked with him, we’ve had several discussions and he knows I’m high on him as a goalkeeper. He’s been very understanding of the situation. He could have handled it in a negative way and said things in the press but he’s handled it like a pro. That speaks to the kind of kid he is. He’s a good young goalkeeper and we have a lot of faith in him.”
Another reason why MacMath is poised to get the start Sunday are some off-the-field delays that have hampered M'Bolhi, the Algerian World Cup star who was signed three weeks ago. At the time of the signing, it looked like M'Bolhi would only maybe sit out one game before taking over in net. But because of what Curtin called an “international glitch” with the U.S. State Department, it took longer than expected for M'Bolhi to get his visa.
“When Rais signed and we introduced him, we thought everything was taken care of,” Curtin said. “Something went wrong and now we’ve had to deal with the repercussions of that. It’s not a Union issue; it’s a United States of America issue. So it’s kind of out of our hands in that regard.”
Curtin was happy to point out that Mbolhi now has “his passport in hand, everything is taken care of, and he is officially ready to go.” But because of a minor car accident in Paris, the Algerian's flight to the U.S. was delayed and he missed two practices this week, meaning that getting him into the starting lineup this weekend would be very difficult.
“He’s a guy that needs to be 100 percent mentally ready to go before he debuts,” Curtin said. “Debuts are special. Goalkeeping is a unique position in that you cannot be that involved mentally for 89 minutes but then you’re called upon to make one save. So he wants to be 100 percent sharp. I totally get that. We’ll respect that decision.”
Even once M'Bolhi is 100 percent, he still might not play much for the Union this season due to his commitment to the Algerian national team for the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. Algeria has games on Sept. 6, Sept. 10, Oct. 10 or 11, Oct. 15, Nov. 14 or 15 and Nov. 19.
Depending on Algeria’s schedule before and after those qualifiers, M'Bolhi may end up playing only a couple of Philly’s remaining 11 games (10 league matches and the U.S. Open Cup final on Sept. 16).
“We’re aware of when he’ll be here and when he won’t be,” Curtin said. “We’re dialed in on that. … Zac knows where he stands. Zac knows he’s going to be asked to play in big games down the stretch. Again, when Rais is ready and he tells me he’s 100 percent, he will start. If he’s at the African Cup of Nations, he will not start for us because he’ll be playing for Algeria then. But when he is here, he will start and Zac will do a great job when he’s not here.”
For MacMath, it doesn’t matter if M'Bolhi is with the team or in a different country. After all, he's gotten used to the goalkeeping uncertainty.
“It doesn’t change,” he said. “Regardless of if he’s here or not, I’m putting in the work that I need to put in. Some guys get injuries or whatever it may be. Whether they’re here on the field, not on the field, we’re a team and we’re all trying to go for the same goal.”
Big news on the business front
Just a few days after beginning construction on a new practice facility, which is being built at the PPL Park parking lot, the Union renewed their jersey partnership with Bimbo Bakeries USA.
As for the practice facility, which has been in the works for a long time and will allow the team to stop training out of Chester Park and then driving to PPL Park to use the stadium locker rooms, Curtin called it “special.”
“It’s important to the club to have a field where we can just walk out the door and be there that isn’t our stadium field,” Curtin said. “It’s an important recruiting tool because it’s going to be a really beautiful facility. When big-time foreign players come over here and see that, it’s appealing. It goes a long way. We’re thrilled that it’s getting done and it will be very special when that gets opened up and running.”
Big-time Taney fan
Count Jim Curtin as another member of the Taney Dragons’ ever-growing fan club.
But the Union manager would like you to know that he’s been cheering for Taney long before Mo’ne Davis and the Philly all-stars stormed into the Little League World Series and became the talk of the country.
As a Bella Vista resident, Curtin’s children are part of the Taney Little League program, and sometimes he even coaches them.
“I’m not a fair-weather, bandwagon fan with that one,” Curtin said. “We’re involved heavily in the Taney family, and it’s been really cool to watch inspiration for my daughter and inspiration for girls everywhere. It’s been a cool run.”