Another day, another goalkeeper added to the Philadelphia Union roster. On Thursday the Union announced that the club had signed Carolina Railhawks goalkeeper Brian Sylvestre on a short-term loan. As per league policy terms of the loan were not announced although given the Union’s history perhaps Mr. Sylvestre should not unpack his bags.
To say that the Philadelphia Union have had a problem finding a starting goalkeeper would be an understatement. If Sylvestre makes the starting eleven for the Union on Saturday night he will be their fifth starter in under a year. To put that number in perspective no other club has even had four starting goalkeepers in the past year. Rais M’Bolhi, Zac MacMath, Andre Blake, and John McCarthy are all still on the Union’s payroll (although it should be noted MacMath is on loan) yet the club is once again on the hunt for another goalkeeper.
Now part of the problems is that the club in this instance did need to get another goalkeeper. Andre Blake, who the club drafted with the number one overall pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, is lost for the season with a knee injury. McCarthy meanwhile suffered a concussion in the club’s 1-0 loss to Toronto FC last week.
Mbolhi meanwhile is currently in the middle of a dispute with the club over what Union coach Jim Curtin calls “a difference of philosophy.” Perhaps it was due to his benching but it appears that Mbolhi’s time with the club is just about up.
While the Union are certainly not the first club to have multiple injuries to goalkeepers or to have a Designated Player fail to live up to expectations, they are at fault for not sticking with a goalkeeper.
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There is perhaps no position that represents a team better than the goalkeeper position. Although teams can have many interchangeable parts, consistency at goalkeeper is perhaps one of the most important facets of any good team. Looking at the best team in the league there is very little turnover in goalkeepers. Aside from the occasional injury or suspension teams like the New York Red Bulls (Luis Robles,) Seattle Sounders (Stefan Frei,) D.C. United (Bill Hamid,) and Real Salt Lake (Nick Rimando) have had the same goalkeeper over a number of years.
The same could not be said for the Union. After drafting Zac MacMath with the fifth overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft, the club made U-Turn last season drafting Blake in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft.
This move seemed to be odd for two reasons. First, MacMath was just 22 years old at the time and was coming a pretty decent season. The Union only allowed 44 goals in 2013 and although MacMath made a few bad errors he seemed to be getting into better form as the year went on. Plus most goalkeepers at 22 years old are still learning the ropes and as long as they don’t perform terribly there is no reason spend another first round pick on an unproven goalkeeper.
Second, for a club that had far more pressing needs entering into the 2014 campaign adding another goalkeeper seemed to be a bit perplexing. Although Blake has become the starter for the Jamaican national team, he has only made one appearance for the Union. Looking at the success of players drafted later that year, including D.C. United center-back Steve Birnbaum, F.C. Dallas Tesho Akindele, and Colorado Rapids midfielder Marlon Hairston it is clear that the club dropped the ball.
Despite this and a slow start, the Union did pull together a strong June and July in 2014. MacMath was still making the occasional error but made three saves on penalty kicks and helped lift the club to the US Open Cup Final. But rather than signing a Designated Player defender, the club bizarrely opted to pick up Mbolhi in August.
While Mbolhi was terrible for the Union last season, he has been even worse in 2015. His 1.80 Goals Against Average is the fifth-highest in MLS (ironically surpassed by his replacement, John McCarthy). Furthermore his save percentage is a paltry 50%. For a guy whose claim to fame was for his fantastic saves against the Germans at the World Cup he certainly seems to be sporting of stone hands recently.
Union coach Jim Curtin may have penciled a couple of different goalkeepers over the past year for his starting eleven, but the one constant is their lack of direction. Drafting two goalkeepers with top spots in the college draft and spending Designated Player money on another is a textbook case of poor use of resources and speaks to broader problems within the Union organization.
For a team that was built on the trust of its supporters it seems as if that connection is being exploited. With the pieces that this team has in the midfield and on the attack there is little reasonfor their 1-6-2 record other than the lack of a long-term plan. Perhaps in time Andre Blake will become one of the best goalkeepers in MLS. Or perhaps the team will get a considerable transfer value for Mbolhi in July to help solidify their needs. But with the team relying on short-term loans and MLS pool players to start critical road matches it seems that the club has still not learned its lesson.