Inside the Union: Union brought in German goalie to push MacMath

Union goalie Zac MacMath , 21, in his second season as a full-time starter, will have 39-year-old Bundesliga veteran Oka Nikolov nipping at his heels. DREW HALLOWELL / Getty Images
Union goalie Zac MacMath , 21, in his second season as a full-time starter, will have 39-year-old Bundesliga veteran Oka Nikolov nipping at his heels. DREW HALLOWELL / Getty Images
Posted: June 22, 2013

It was interesting to hear the Union's spin on signing 39-year-old German goalkeeper Oka Nikolov.

At first, team manager John Hackworth mentioned that the veteran of 229 Bundesliga games was being brought in as a mentor.

Later in a news conference Wednesday, Hackworth acknowledged that Nikolov was there to push starter Zac MacMath and backup Chris Konopka in practice.

Then Hackworth said: "I wouldn't bring a guy in to be a practice player."

Yet, Hackworth stated emphatically that the 21-year-old MacMath, now in his third season with the team and second as full-time starter, was the man - for now.

"Zac is absolutely, 100 percent the starter," Hackworth said.

There is no fibbing there.

Because Nikolov is considered a summer transfer, the earliest that he could step on the field for the Union is July 12, when they host Chivas USA at PPL Park in a MLS game.

Hackworth said the deal was something the team talked about during the preseason and that it wasn't a reaction to the Union's having allowed 24 goals in 15 games. D.C. United is the only Eastern Conference team that has allowed more goals.

MacMath, who has played every minute in the team's MLS games this season, has been solid but far from spectacular.

So no matter how the Union want this to sound, they obviously feel they have a chance to win this year. They didn't bring in Nikolov with the long-range future in mind. Even keepers can't go forever.

Remember, the Union had a 40-year-old goalie in 2011, Faryd Mondragon, who was strong early in the year but also had a veteran defense in front of him. As the season went on, Mondragon showed some holes, especially when the opponent took low shots.

Yet what he did was give the Union confidence and they made the playoffs in 2011. Now in their fourth year, they have designs on the postseason again.

Hackworth would no doubt like MacMath to be the man to lead them there, but if the former University of Maryland star falters, there is a viable alternative.

However, the team risks MacMath's losing his confidence by looking over his shoulder, something that Hackworth conceded.

"It is certainly a concern, but our coaching staff has a lot to do with a player's confidence," Hackworth said.

"Zac knows he is still No. 1," Hackworth added. "He knows we believe in him and trust in him."

The Union have scored 22 goals and have an offense that is capable of keeping them in every game. Now they want to fortify the defense.

The goalie situation has obscured the fact that the Union have a huge game Sunday, hosting the rival New York Red Bulls. The Red Bulls are three points ahead and have played one more game than the Union.

It's a critical matchup and the first in which MacMath will look to cement a job that he thought was already his.


Contact Marc Narducci at mnarducci@phillynews.com. Follow @sjnard on Twitter.

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