CHESTER, Pa. -- Just when you thought the Philadelphia Union’s goalkeeping saga couldn’t get any crazier, another hard-to-believe chapter was written this week.
In the span of one training session Tuesday, Rais Mbolhi returned to the practice field after a month away from Philly, John McCarthy got hit in the head with a ball and suffered a concussion, and Andre Blake endured his second major knee injury in the last four months -- this one to his other knee.
And suddenly, heading into Saturday’s tough game against the Whitecaps in Vancouver (7 p.m., TCN), the only healthy goalie under contract is the deeply unpopular one who was not only benched last month but also essentially banished from the premises.
“You can’t make it up,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “I’d say the timing is beyond crazy. I’ve never seen two goalkeepers hurt in one training session. I’ve never seen two goalkeepers get hurt in one season, let alone literally 45 seconds apart.”
If there’s good news for Curtin, maybe it’s that he has an experienced World Cup veteran like Mbolhi to lean on while Blake and McCarty recover from their injuries? Perhaps one that returned from his month-long European sabbatical with a fresh perspective, hungry to prove that he was worth the huge money the team doled out for him last summer and ready to reclaim his starting spot in goal?
Yeah, about that …
It was clear from Curtin’s weekly news conference with the media Wednesday that his opinion on Mbolhi hasn’t changed much in the month since he told him to skip town. Aside from saying he’s been “sharp in training” and that he’s “all for second chances” (which he quickly segued into conversations he’s had with striker C.J. Sapong, who was recently arrested for a DUI), Curtin didn’t exactly inspire much confidence in the Algerian.
Heck, he didn’t even officially name him the starter for Saturday’s game in Vancouver, instead leaving the door open for an unnamed player they might acquire this week to get the nod instead (while also insinuating that Mbolhi may be sold during the summer transfer window).
“It’s only been two training sessions, so I can’t say I’ve seen anything different,” Curtin said of Mbolhi, who ranked dead last among MLS starters in save percentage and goals against through the first five games of the season. “We have two injured goalkeepers. He’s our third one that’s under contract. We still will explore what the best option is to give us a chance to get a result in Vancouver. It’s an environment where you’re going to have to make some saves to keep us in the game, no matter who is in goal. So hopefully he will be up to the task if we do decide to go with him.”
If the Union choose to go with someone other than Mbolhi in Vancouver, he will be the 10th goalkeeper to play for the sixth-year franchise. On its own, that may not seem especially remarkable, but when you consider the bumpiness of the goalkeeping carousel, it becomes clear why the phrase “Union goalkeepers” has become something of a league-wide joke.
First, there was Chris Seitz and Brad Knighton, the young goalies who made their fair share of mistakes during the team’s expansion season of 2010 and were promptly dumped at the end of the season, only to later find some success at other clubs. Then, there was the Colombian-born Faryd Mondragon, who played well enough in 2011 to lead the Union to their only playoff appearance but then decided at the end of the season he wanted to go back to Colombia. And then, there was Zac MacMath, who the Union picked fifth overall in the 2011 draft and handed the keys to the net to in 2012, helping him to grow and develop for nearly three years before yanking the rug from underneath him by drafting Andre Blake first overall in 2014 and then signing Mbolhi a few months later.
At the time, it seemed like the Union had a glutton of goalies with a two-time World Cup veteran (Mbolhi) joining two promising youngsters (MacMath and Blake) -- and Union CEO Nick Sakiewcz boasting that he thought the team had “three of the best goalkeepers in Major League Soccer.” But now that MacMath has been sent on a year-long loan to the Colorado Rapids, Blake can’t stay healthy, and McCarthy -- the Philly kid who started the last five games after Mbolhi was benched -- is concussed, the Union have to quickly acquire another goalkeeper, possibly one who is ready to start for the next couple of games.
“Obviously, a unique situation arises and now we have to adjust and we have a decision to make this weekend,” Curtin said. “There’s a couple of options we’re exploring right now. We haven’t made a final one but we’ll see whether we get a pool goalkeeper or a goalkeeper on loan. We’re going to need two [goalkeepers] one way or another.”
And so the cycle will continue. And whichever goalie the Union end up bringing in this week, Philly fans will hope for the best … but you’ll have to forgive them if they expect the worst.