By just about all accounts, Zac MacMath is as good a goalkeeping prospect as has entered the MLS SuperDraft in quite some time. At 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds, he's almost the perfect size. He played for the United States in the U-17 World Cup and has been in the player pool for both the U-18, U-20 and U-23 teams. During his three seasons at the University of Maryland, he registered shutouts in 34 of 64 matches and sported a tidy .65 goals against average. Really, there's not much more you could ask of a 19-year-old.
Trouble is, his next step is almost certainly MLS and he plays a position where youth is almost never considered an asset. More than any other position, goalkeeper is a position dominated by veterans. It is also a position that is particularly difficult to project, as goalkeepers routinely hit their prime in their late 20s and often not until their 30s. MacMath may very well be the best goalkeeping prospect in the country, but chances are he won't be able to really tap into that talent for several more years. At the very least, it's unlikely he'll be given a chance to start for a playoff-caliber team in the next couple of years.
In the run-up to Thursday's MLS SuperDraft, MacMath spoke about his desire to play sooner than later. Among the teams mentioned as a possible destination was the Seattle Sounders, where Kasey Keller is on a one-year contract.
A player like MacMath would obviously stand to gain by serving as the understudy for arguably the greatest U.S. goalkeeper in history, but he would also be bucking a devastatingly clear trend: MLS coaches are wary of handing over goalkeeping duties to young players and those that do often do so only as a last resort. Even the most successful goalkeepers in league history didn't see much success before turning 23.
Goalkeepers Drafted Since 2002
There have been 36 goalkeepers taken in the eight SuperDrafts since 2002. Of those 36, just 19 ever made a regular-season appearance in the league. Of those 19, just seven are even in the running for a starting position this year and just two are doing so with the team that drafted them. Only three goalkeepers drafted since 2002 have ever led their team to the playoffs (Brad Guzan, Will Hesmer and Matt Pickens) and just two have ever won a playoff series (Hesmer and Pickens).
While Guzan, Hesmer and Pickens clearly represent the upside to drafting a goalkeeper early (all were selected among the first 20 picks and Guzan was the No. 2 overall selection), none of them started regularly before they turned 23. Guzan claimed the starting position by his second year and led Chivas USA to the playoffs three straight years. But he transferred to Europe, where he's now starting for Hull City, before he ever won a round in the playoffs. Hesmer and Pickens each eventually won a MLS Cup, but neither won a playoff round until they were 25.
There's no question that there's some selection bias going on here. Coaches, especially those who have MLS Cup-contending teams, show a clear preference for older goalkeepers. But it also appears they have some reasonable basis for that belief.
Playoff Success Doesn't Come Quickly
In the 15-year history of MLS, just 20 goalkeepers younger than 30 have won a playoff round and just eight younger than 30 have won a MLS Cup. Only four keepers younger than 25 have won a round, one since the 1999 season when 24-year-old Tom Presthus became the youngest goalkeeper to win a title after leading DC United to their third championship in four years. The average age of MLS goalkeepers who have won at least one round is 29.5, roughly the same average age of MLS Cup winners. No MLS goalkeeper has won a playoff round before turning 24.
Expanding our scope a little, goalkeepers younger than 30 have won 18 of 40 playoff rounds they've played in since 2002, a winning percentage of .450. Goalkeepers 30 or older have won 43 of 80 playoff rounds, a winning percentage of .538. (An interesting note: In the three MLS Cup finals that featured a goalkeeper younger than 30 and one older than 30, the younger goalkeeper won.)
As the league has matured, so has the age of successful goalkeepers. Since 2002, the average age of goalkeepers who have won at least a round is 31.4 and the average age of Cup-winning goalkeepers is 31.2. Only six goalkeepers younger than 25 have played significant roles on playoff teams during that period.
In that time, Nick Rimando is the youngest goalkeeper to win a MLS Cup, leading DC United to their third title in 2005 as a 25-year-old. Adin Brown is the youngest goalkeeper to win a playoff round since 2002, and no keeper younger than 24 has ever won a playoff round in league history. The then 24-year-old led the New England Revolution to the MLS championship game in 2002.
Brown, in fact, represents a fair comparison to MacMath. He was the third overall pick in the 2000 SuperDraft after twice being named First Team All-America and started about half the Rapids' games as a rookie. He also represents a cautionary tale. By his third season, Brown was battling injuries and he was out of a job by 2004. He then went to Europe, where he started 68 matches over six seasons with Norway's Aalesunds, before returning the United States as a backup for the USSF Division 2 Portland Timbers last year. At 32, he's once again looking for work.
Goalkeepers Found In Many Ways
Not including players picked in the inaugural draft of 1996, just four goalkeepers picked in the first 18 picks (the length of this year's first round) have won at least one playoff round. Aside from Hesmer, Pickens and Brown, Matt Jordan is the only other first-round pick to win a playoff round. Those four players have collectively won 12 rounds, taken their teams to three MLS Cup finals and won two titles.
On the other end of the spectrum, three goalkeepers who were passed over entirely in the MLS Draft have won playoff rounds. Troy Perkins, Scott Garlick and Joe Cannon have combined for 12 playoff round victories, have led their teams to three MLS Cup finals and won two titles.
Again, excluding players taken in that inaugural 1996 draft, two goalkeepers have gone from lower-division U.S. leagues to winning at least a round in the MLS playoffs. They, too, have combined for 12 victorious playoff rounds. Jon Busch has led three different teams to playoff victories since joining the MLS out of the USL at the age of 26. Pat Onstad did not join MLS until he was 35, but managed to win three MLS Cups before retiring this off-season and joining Ben Olsen's DC United coaching staff.
Three other highly successful MLS goalkeepers were later-round draft picks. Kevin Hartman (29th overall pick in 1997), Matt Reis (26th overall pick in 1998) and Rimando (35th in 2000) are all among the most decorated playoff goalkeepers in MLS history, but none of them won a playoff round until they were 25. They have now combined for 29 playoff round victories, 11 MLS Cup finals appearances and four championships.
Back to MacMath
None of this is meant to suggest MacMath is destined for failure. Tim Howard, who you might know as the starting goalkeeper for the most recent U.S. World Cup team, was the same age as MacMath when he was signed by the MetroStars in 1998. He didn't claim the fulltime starting job until 2002, when he was 23, and never won a playoff round before heading to Manchester United in 2003. He has since established himself as a solid EPL starting goalkeeper.
Keller didn't start for a professional team until he was 23, but that was for then-League One Millwall. He was 27 by the time he debuted in the EPL. Marcus Hahnemann was 25 when he first started in MLS. Brad Friedel was 24 when he first played for Turkey's Galatasaray and 25 when he joined the Crew. Those four players, along with Guzan, basically represent the top goalkeepers in U.S. history.
Sure, there's plenty of recent precedent for players younger than 25 to get playing time in MLS, but it's not for playoff teams. Four of the 23 goalkeepers who played at least three regular-season MLS matches last year were younger than 25, with DC United 20-year-old Bill Hamid being the youngest. Combined with Sean Johnson (21), Stefan Frei (24) and Chris Seitz (23) the four goalkeepers performed below league average. Their .701 save percentage, 1.47 goals against average and 12 shutouts in 72 matches were all toward the bottom end of the spectrum. Johnson was the best of the group (.754 SV%, 1.31 GAA and shutouts in 32 percent of his starts), but he ranked lower than average in all three categories.
More to the point, their four teams averaged 31.75 points last season, and none finished closer than 10 points to the final playoff spot. None of those teams averaged 1.53 PPM (what the No. 8 playoff team averaged) during the games those keepers started and collectively they went 20-36-16.
MacMath may be the next great American keeper, taking the mantel that has been passed from Friedel to Keller to Howard. But it's almost certainly going to take some time, and it's highly unlikely that he'll be allowed to contribute to a playoff-caliber team. Whatever team picks him should be prepared to give him a chance to develop before expecting miracles.