Player Spotlight: After Union 'shock,' MacMath welcomes fresh start in Colorado

The 23-year-old goalkeeper is competing for the Colorado Rapids' starting job after being unseated as the Philadelphia Union's No. 1.
Zac MacMath ran the gauntlet of emotions last season.

It began with surprise when the Philadelphia Union traded up to draft Andre Blake with the No. 1 pick in the MLS SuperDraft. Himself a top-five selection, MacMath was entering his third year as the Union's starter and didn't expect the club to invest in another blue-chip goalkeeping prospect.

GOAL'S MLS SEASON PREVIEWS

Goal North America is providing previews of all 20 MLS clubs ahead of the 2015 campaign. Here are the teams we've broken down thus far:

D.C. United | New England Revolution
Vancouver Whitecaps | Columbus Crew
Seattle Sounders | FC Dallas
Houston Dynamo | Philadelphia Union
Portland Timbers | Toronto FC
Colorado Rapids
| Montreal Impact

Next came acceptance. Then-coach John Hackworth explained the move was about competition, and MacMath bought in. After beating out Blake for the starting spot, MacMath delivered five steady months in goal.

Then there was disbelief. The Union announced another acquisition: Algeria international Rais Mbolhi. This time around, there would be no battle for the starting spot. Mbolhi came in as the undisputed No. 1.

"It was a shock," MacMath told Goal USA. "My first reaction was disappointment — and a little bit of anger."

It was a curious move by the Union. The team, which ultimately finished sixth in the Eastern Conference, had some holes. But goalkeeper didn't appear to be one of them.

For MacMath, the writing was on the wall. A 23-year-old with his resume wasn't going to stick around and rot on the bench for long. Last month, Philadelphia sent MacMath to the Colorado Rapids on a one-year loan in exchange for a second-round draft pick.

"Zac served the club well," Union coach Jim Curtin said. "He's still our property, he's still getting games, he's still a young goalkeeper. When you have three good ones, it doesn't make sense to keep them all here and have two sit on the bench."

Thus MacMath ended up with Colorado, where he is battling incumbent Clint Irwin for the No. 1 job. After the Rapids (8-18-8) conceded a league-leading 62 goals last season, the front office decided the club could use another option between the posts. Although the loan expires at season's end, the Rapids can acquire MacMath's permanent rights by sending their highest 2016 first-round pick to Philadelphia.

"I spent a lot of time assessing all of the different areas where we thought we wanted to improve, and the goalkeeper position was one where we felt we could add more competition," Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni said. "Zac is a player that fits our profile. He's a young player, but he's got some good experience in the league. He had a good campaign last year — the best of his career."

To MacMath, that progress last season made his demotion with the Union even tougher to swallow. While the University of Maryland product experienced his fair share of growing pains early in his MLS career, MacMath had largely weeded those mental errors out of his game.

Developing a knack for coming off his line, MacMath led MLS in "keeper sweepings" last year. He also made a trio of penalty kick saves that helped keep Philadelphia afloat during a rough start to the 2014 campaign.

As the Union pursued an upgrade, MacMath characterized the lack of communication with the front office as "unfortunate." It wasn't until Curtin sat him down before the Mbolhi unveiling that Philadelphia's intentions became clear.

"Coach Curtin pulled me into his office and told me the deal, said it was really out of his hands," MacMath recalled. "I took it as best as I could, and it gave me a little bit of a chip on my shoulder."

Between fitness concerns and national team obligations, Mbolhi made just four appearances for the Union last season — leaving MacMath to start the U.S. Open Cup final and most of the MLS home-stretch matches.

But MacMath still became the latest young talent to leave PPL Park. Just 14 months ago, the Union were built around a promising nucleus featuring MacMath, Amobi Okugo, Michael Farfan and Jack McInerney. With MacMath's loan, none of those players remains on Philadelphia's active roster.

"I thought we had a really good core of players," MacMath said. "There were a bunch of guys that were learning on the job because it was their first couple years as a pro, but we were making really good strides. It seems like the coaching staff or the front office felt pressure from the fans — that they had to change things right away, instead of making it a five-plan where they wanted to let these young guys develop into seasoned pros. It looks like they just didn't have the patience."

MacMath could conceivably return to the Union in 2016, but he's "not really thinking about what next year holds." At the moment, he considers himself a part of Colorado's own young core — which includes Shane O'Neill, Dillon Serna, Juan Ramirez, Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown.

As the youngest player in MLS history to log 100 matches, MacMath offers the Rapids an unusual fusion of potential and experience.

"You can tell when he's back there that's he's been down that road many times," O'Neill said. "That's key for that position."

Yet MacMath is treading into unknown territory after four years in Philadelphia. Off the field, life in Denver has its perks. Exploring a new city comes with the typical intrigue, and the lifelong East Coaster figures his border retriever won't mind embarking on some Rocky Mountain hiking ventures.

On the field, MacMath acknowledges he's not a finished product. His technique in one-on-one situations could use some polish. Consistency is a focus as well. But MacMath is in contention for the starting job — which is more than he could say in Philadelphia.

Having stepped away from PPL Park's crowded goalkeeping corps, MacMath finds himself feeling yet another emotion: relief.

"Obviously, the last few months in Philly last year were rough for me," MacMath said. "It's very welcome to have a fresh start."

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