CHESTER, Pa — He looks just like a million college-aged American men: tall, lean, Ralph Lauren Polo t-shirt over a relaxed pair of jeans. So what is it that makes Zac MacMath so special?
Well, MacMath is the starting goalkeeper for the Philadelphia Union, and, at 20, the youngest first-choice keeper in Major League Soccer. As if that wasn’t pressure enough, he is also tasked with taking the reins from All-Star Faryd Mondragon, who piloted the Union to their first-ever playoff berth a season ago. Oh, and the team has yet to cull even a single point from their first three matches in 2012.
He isn’t intimidated by any of it, however, and both he and his squad are confident that preparation and talent will easily overcome inexperience.
“The team, we’re building every game, and trying to improve every game,” MacMath told Goal.com. “As the season goes on, the team will only get better and better as we build chemistry.”
The keeper is mature well beyond his years – despite the rough start to the season, his confidence is unshaken, as is the support of his coaching staff. Head coach Peter Nowak and his top two assistants all knew him since before his days as a professional, and are not at all fazed by this minor bump on the road to what is sure to be a long, fruitful career.
“Coach [John] Hackworth had him with the U-17’s, Peter [Nowak] had him with the Olympic group, and I had him in college,” said assistant coach and goalkeeping coordinator Rob Vartughian, MacMath’s former goalkeeping coach at the University of Maryland to Goal.com. “He’s a guy that’s got a very good pedigree, and we all know what he’s capable of.”
He’s capable of holding opponents to a mere eight goals over seven league starts last season, thrown to the wolves as a 19-year-old, and keeping Philadelphia in the playoff hunt while Mondragon was shelved with a hand injury. During last summer’s European touring season, the rookie came on at halftime and shut out Everton, while blanking Real Madrid in 35 minutes of action against the Spanish giants.
Win or lose, starter or reserve, MacMath’s preparation and approach to the game is unwavering.
“I put a good amount of work into the offseason even before I knew I was going to be the starting goalkeeper,” he said. “Once I found out, I wanted to change as little as possible.”
“The biggest thing about Zac is that, even at 20 years old, he is a very good professional. He is very much committed to this job,” added Vartughian. “He very much prepares himself, whether it’s from a physical standpoint, a dietary standpoint, he treats this job the way that you’d expect a 35-year-old veteran to do so.”
Leading up to each match, MacMath first studies the opposing team as a whole, then hones in on the tendencies of the forward and midfield units before focusing on the individual attacking trends of each player.
Goalkeepers have unique styles as well, and MacMath loves playing away from the goal, cutting off angles and attacking crosses. Against Chicago, he darted out towards the penalty spot to deflect a breakaway attempt by forward Dominic Oduro, a play that earned him an MLS Save Of the Week nomination.
“I think that’s part of my natural tendency, to be aggressive and own my box,” he said. “I’ve tried to adjust to be more aggressive at times, and I also have to be less aggressive at times.”
After allowing three goals in his debut as first-choice keeper in Portland, and two against Colorado, MacMath was pleased with his performance last week, despite the 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Fire.
“It was a full 90 that I think I didn’t make any big mistakes like the previous games, so I was happy about that,” said MacMath after the match. “It definitely builds my confidence going forward.”
Confidence. Zac MacMath has it, and the Philadelphia Union have it in MacMath. Said Vartughian, “We believe in him. We’ve told him that within the confines of the team, we’ve told him that as a coaching staff. He knows that.”