When Timmy is away, Zac gets to play.
During a three-game span in April when Tim Howard was suspended, it was Zac MacMath starting in front of the net for the Rapids. He was back on the pitch in June for a game when Howard was called for international duty. And MacMath patrolled the net for Colorado in last Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Toronto FC with the American stalwart back with the U.S. national team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
MacMath gets at least one more start in goal for now, as head coach Pablo Mastroeni told The Denver Post Thursday that Howard will rest when the club faces the San Jose Earthquakes in their next match July 29. The USMNT capped its Gold Cup run with a 2-1 win over Jamaica in Wednesday’s championship match.
“I obviously want to start every game I can, whether Timmy is here or not,” MacMath said. “When he’s here, he’s the starter for this team. He’s the captain. I’m just here to fill in when I can and do my best when I play.”
It sounds like what you’d expect: A trusty backup ready to fill in at a moment’s notice; the less talented second option saying he’s up to the challenge of replacing the starter.
But MacMath’s case is different. He would start on most MLS teams. Statistically, he was the league’s best goalkeeper last year and had one of the best seasons for a goalie in Rapids history. His 0.76 goals against average in 2016 is a franchise-best. The Rapids went 9-3-5 (.676 winning percentage) with MacMath in the goal, which ranks second all-time for Rapids goalkeepers (the top mark by Marcus Hahnemann, .769 in 1999, came when ties weren’t allowed).
But MacMath was upended of his starting job when Howard, arguably the greatest American goalkeeper of all-time, arrived in Commerce City last year. And now MacMath finds himself again an understudy — a role that’s become commonplace in his professional career.
“At this point, I’ve been answering (the goalkeeping situation) for a few years now,” MacMath said. “It doesn’t bother me. It continues to motivate me everyday in hopes that one day I’ll be the No. 1 starter.”
Before the pros, MacMath always heard his name called.
He was a Parade All-American goalkeeper as a junior at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and played for the U.S. U-17 national team at the 2007 FIFA World Cup. As a college freshman the following year, he was the starting goalie for a Maryland Terrapins squad that won the NCAA title.
MacMath was drafted fifth in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft by the Philadelphia Union, a pick that warrants significant playing time right away in most cases, but was a backup to start his career. After appearing in just eight games as a rookie, he got the starting nod for the majority of the Union’s next three seasons. Majority, not all. His third season with the club is when his future turned doubtful. Philadelphia used the first pick in the 2014 MLS draft on goalie Andre Blake. And although he won the No. 1 spot for most of the season, MacMath was relegated back to a second option when the Union picked up Algeria’s Rais Mbolhi.
Philadelphia loaned him to the Rapids in January of 2015, where he became the backup to Clint Irwin. In 2016, MacMath was finally a starter again — Irwin had been shipped to Toronto. He was in the goal for the first 16 games of the season and registered six shutouts. Then comes Howard.
MacMath told The Denver Post last August that he wanted to be transferred to a club where he could be a starter. Today, he says he’s happy to be with the team but wants to take his situation one off-season at a time.
MacMath shared the Rapids’ MVP honors with Howard last season, but recorded a better goals against average than Howard in 2016 with 17 games apiece, 0.76 to 1.12, respectively. In 2017 thus far, MacMath has a better average again, although Howard has played more than twice the number of games than his counterpart: 1.17 GAA in six games for MacMath to 1.61 in 13 for Howard.
“(The goalie) position is kind of like quarterback,” said Rapids defender Bobby Burling, a close friend of MacMath’s. “One player competing for one spot and obviously with a guy of Tim’s caliber– his career and resume speak for itself. Zac wasn’t pleased with being a second-string goalie, if you will. At the same time, he’s taken the role really well.”
In his six MLS starts this season with no Howard, MacMath hasn’t seen the same success in the win-loss column as a year ago. He’s 2-3-1 on the pitch in 2017.
But individually, he’s shown glimpses of the promise that made him one of the best keepers in the MLS. He won MLS “Save of the Week” in back-to-back weeks in April. And, like Howard, Burling said, MacMath communicates well with the Rapids’ back line through the course of a game.
On Saturday against Toronto, MacMath had three saves. He has 17 on the year and one clean sheet.
“We’re confident in that when we do miss Tim on international duty or injury or suspension or whatever happens in soccer, Zac is a capable and willing goalie,” Burling said. “His development over the past two years speaks for itself.”
MacMath’s time is winding down — again. Howard will likely be back in the goal when the Rapids face Vancouver on Aug. 5. But he’ll keep fighting for the day when starter’s minutes will be a given and not an elusive reality.
“I’ve had a little bit of a roller coaster career,” MacMath said. “I’ve ended up in a second position on most teams I’ve been on for whatever reason, whereas they might not have been the most fair situations. I continue to get better each year and, hopefully, land a No. 1 spot for the foreseeable future.”