Benching of Rais M'Bolhi a step in the right direction for Philadelphia Union
For the Philadelphia Union, the equation became clear after Sunday's 3-2 loss at Sporting Kansas City. To improve play, something finally needed to be done about the goalkeeper position. As head coach Jim Curtin announced in a press conference on Wednesday, the solution will come, for now, via subtraction.
Rais M'Bolhi, the Algerian national team goalkeeper whose acquisition last summer confounded many, is out as a starter in Philadelphia. That in and of itself is not incredibly surprising; M'Bolhi has struggled mightily in the Union's first five games, and his shakiness in coming off his line could be fairly blamed for all three of the goals the Union let in against Kansas City (including two in stoppage time).
What is a little surprising, though, is that M'Bohli isn't just being benched – he's being removed from the squad entirely. John McCarthy, a Philadelphia native and 2014 USL Goalkeeper of the Year with the Rochester Raging Rhinos, will be the starter. Andre Blake, the Union's first overall selection in the 2014 SuperDraft, will be the backup as he continues to recover from preseason knee surgery.
"Right now [M'Bolhi] doesn't look like himself, and right now I think it's best for the team that he have a seat and watch," Curtin said. "He didn't seem like the goalkeeper that was winning us games in the preseason single-handedly. I think the confidence was gone in him."
The decision to move on from M'Bolhi will hurt from a financial perspective, considering his near-Designated Player-level salary ($240,000 guaranteed in 2014, according to the MLS Players' Union). But the net result should be a positive for the Union. After a series of increasingly head-scratching acquisitions for a position only one player at a time can play, subtraction of any kind represents progress.
The club made a wise play to the future in 2011, drafting Zac MacMath with the fifth overall pick in that year's SuperDraft. MacMath had three seasons in Philly (two as an everyday starter) before the Union drafted the highly-touted Blake, a player many considered to be an MLS-ready starter himself. Then, just months after drafting Blake, the Union signed M'Bohli following his solid performances with Algeria at the 2014 World Cup.
Just like that, the Union had three starting-caliber keepers on its roster. MacMath went out on loan to the Colorado Rapids for this season. Blake suffered his knee injury. The stage was set for M'Bolhi to assert himself as the man between the sticks. Instead, the Union are winless in five, and the Algerian's play is part of the reason.
"He did mention that he can't guarantee how he'll react to this, because it's the first time he's been benched," Curtin said of his meeting with M'Bolhi. The Algerian's reaction, though, may not matter a great deal.
Curtin refused to fully discuss any potential transfer away from the club for M'Bolhi, but did say the Union were in the process "putting a plan together" for the goalkeeper. If Philadelphia is able to deal M'Bolhi and get anywhere close to the reported $400,000 it paid for him a year ago, it may be the quickest way out of an over-crowded situation (not to mention free up a good chunk of cap space that the team can use to address other needs).
"[M'Bolhi] is an experienced player that we needed to rise to the moment and win us games and right now that's not happening," Curtin said. "It could still happen down the road, but right now it's not, and I think it's a needed change."
McCarthy's first MLS start will be a tough one, as David Villa and expansion side NYCFC pay a visit to the Union's PPL Park on Saturday evening.