If any Major League Soccer team values competition for its No. 1 shirt, it’s the Philadelphia Union. World Cup veteran goalkeeper Raïs M’Bolhi is the latest to join Philadelphia, his signing announced Wednesday at PPL Park.
M’Bolhi started for Algeria at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups after previous stints with the French youth national teams. He was one of several French-born players on the Fennec Foxes’ 2014 squad that advanced to the round of 16, where they gave Germany a scare before losing in extra time. M’Bolhi made 11 saves and was named Man of the Match for playing his part.
American fans might know him as the man between the sticks for Landon Donovan’s stoppage-time winner at South Africa 2010 that sent the United States into the knockout round. That was the only goal M’Bolhi conceded in the tournament, as he sat out the first match, a 1-0 loss to Slovenia, before assuming responsibility as the starter.
The Union waived Brian Holt to make room for the transfer from CSKA Sofia in Bulgaria, but Holt won’t be the only goalkeeper displaced if M’Bolhi, 28, shoots to the top of the depth chart. Philadelphia also has Zac MacMath and Andre Blake, both first-round MLS SuperDraft picks, on the roster.
In fact, Blake was the first goalkeeper chosen first overall in the draft when the Union traded up to select him in 2014. Blake, 23, relinquished his final year of college eligibility at Connecticut to sign a Generation adidas contract with MLS, but he hasn’t played a minute of league action yet. At the time, it was a controversial decision to part with the No. 2 overall pick and an undisclosed amount of allocation money for a goalkeeper when MacMath had been the clear No. 1 since the 2012 season.
MacMath, 22, served as backup to Faryd Mondragón in 2011, after his own selection at fifth overall. The former U.S. Under-17 Residency and University of Maryland starter was touted as a potential next great American goalkeeper, but he hasn’t quite lived up to the expectation, showing growing pains as a young professional. His decision-making and technical ability haven’t quite matched his sheer athleticism and shot-stopping ability, and the idea at the time of Blake’s signing was that the Jamaican would push MacMath to the next level.
Former manager John Hackworth, who made the draft pick but was ousted in June in favor of interim manager Jim Curtin, said he didn’t want MacMath to be the obvious starter anymore. “It just means that there’s some real competition for him,” Hackworth said in January. “Zac's still our starter, but he was the only goalkeeper on our roster. Now, we have some excellent competition for him and a guy that was on almost every team's draft board as the No. 1 guy in the draft.”
Blake sat on the bench behind Donovan Ricketts in World Cup qualifiers. He recorded 36 shutouts in 68 games in college, clearly taking over as the top upperclassman goalkeeping prospect on the field in 2013 after Washington senior Spencer Richey broke his leg and took a medical redshirt season. As if the trio of M’Bolhi, MacMath and Blake weren’t enough, Philadelphia also has the homegrown rights to Zack Steffen, should he pursue an MLS career.
Like MacMath in his college days, Steffen starts for Maryland, playing every possible minute in his 2013 freshman year. Widely considered to be the top underclassman goalkeeper in the NCAA, Steffen receives regular call-ups to the U.S.’s U-20 national team. The 19-year-old played club soccer for FC Delco, which was assumed into the Union’s developmental umbrella. Depending how quickly he develops, he could soon be a candidate for a professional contract. Should Steffen decide to make the jump in the near future, that would add more goalkeeping competition and selection headaches to the Philadelphia roster, if that’s where he ends up.
In a position dependent on game experience for development, it remains to be seen how the Union will try to keep three viable candidates happy.