EVERY TEAM has a player or perhaps a select few it uses on penalty kicks. When Union midfielder Amobi Okugo was whistled for a handball just inside the box Saturday night at Seattle, goalkeeper Zac MacMath figured the Sounders' Clint Dempsey would attempt the ensuing shot.
Stepping up instead was Osvaldo Alonso, a midfielder the Union goalkeeper did not have as much of a read on. But just as Alonso's right foot struck the ball, MacMath dived to his left and made just enough contact to push the ball off the goal post.
In a season that has failed to live up to expectations, MacMath's play has been a bright spot for the Union (1-4-5). The 22-year-old keeper has been among the club's best performers through the first 10 games, and his trio of thwarted penalty kicks has garnered him a bit of recent attention.
"We just need to build off performances like Zac's," Union manager John Hackworth said ahead of tomorrow's 4 p.m. match against D.C. United at PPL Park (The Comcast Network). "He kept us in a really high-level game on Saturday [in a 2-1 loss to the Sounders] with an excellent save, and he's had a very good year.
"We need other guys to feed off him and have those same kind of performances, so that collectively as a team, we are more consistent and we are playing from the first whistle to the last whistle."
Asked this week whether he'd ever stopped three PKs in a season, MacMath smiled and said he's not even sure he's faced three in a season, let alone foil three in a 10-match span. With stops against Chicago's Mike Magee, Real Salt Lake's Alvaro Saborio and Alonso, the fourth-year Philly keeper is one PK save shy of tying an MLS record set in 2003 by then-Dallas keeper D.J. Countess, who stopped two in one match.
The best part is that before this season, MacMath didn't view this part of his game as a strength. His first three seasons in Philly saw one stop in six PKs.
"It's funny. I've known Zac for a long time and I've seen him take a lot of PKs, and this has not been his strong suit as a goalkeeper," said Hackworth, who added MacMath stopped a couple more in the preseason. "But the good thing is you kind of see Zac evolving. His game has improved in so many little ways that I think it was natural, with his ability to read and his decision-making, that he was going to figure that out."
Each week, typically the day of or before a match, Union assistant coach Rob Vartughian calls up on his computer video of PK attempts taken by players for the upcoming opponent. With his coach at his side, MacMath studies players' tendencies and nuances to better prepare himself if the situation presents itself in the game.
"At the end of the day, when you're in the game, the goalkeeper makes their own decision," said Vartughian, who also coached MacMath at the University of Maryland. "That's just the framework; there are little things he can kind of play with within that moment."
The more MLS experience MacMath gains, the more confidence Vartughian sees in the keeper. The Union used the No. 1 pick in January's SuperDraft on keeper Andre Blake, who because of MacMath's play has yet to see game action.
"Obviously, having a goalkeeper of Andre's capabilities behind me, pushing me every day is only beneficial for me and the team," MacMath said. "Andre and I have worked together really well the last few months and really push each other to get better each day."
For the season, his third as the club's full-time starter, MacMath has two shutouts, a 1.30 goals-against average and a 68 percent save percentage. He surrendered 44 goals in 34 games last season and 43 in 32 games the season before that.
He's been a constant for a club plagued by inconsistency from its forwards and defense.
"I think it's tough on everyone right now," MacMath said. "It's becoming very frustrating for everyone. Everyone's trying to do their job and make the team win games, and we haven't been doing that as a collective group. Hopefully, we can do that sooner rather than later."
Time before the World Cup break is quickly running out. Mired in an eight-match winless streak, the Union tomorrow looks to avoid its longest stretch without a victory in its 5-year history. Its rival from D.C. is 3-3-2, fifth in the Eastern Conference, but also only three points ahead in the standings.
"We know that it only takes one game, one goal, one touch of the ball to really turn a season around," MacMath said. "Hopefully, we can find that this weekend and turn it around for the rest of the season."