By Kevin Kinkead
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It’s likely that Rais Mbolhi has played his last game for the Philadelphia Union.
Manager Jim Curtin confirmed this week that the troubled starting goalkeeper is not with the team following his demotion from the first eleven.
Third-string ‘keeper and local product John McCarthy will play on Saturday as Andre Blake continues to recover from offseason knee surgery.
“We win and lose games as a team,” Curtin said at his midweek press conference. “But as the Kansas City game went on, and throw-in after throw-in was going into the box and there seemed indecision with Rais, I just think — and I talked with him (Tuesday) about it — he doesn’t seem like himself. He didn’t seem like the goalkeeper that I saw that was winning us games in the preseason singlehandedly. I think the confidence was gone in him, his personal confidence to come off his line and make a punch after a lot of balls were getting thrown in the box to kind of bail out our defenders.”
It seems as though we won’t get to hear from Rais before he’s inevitably transferred this summer.
At the start of the season, Union reporters were told by a spokesperson that Mbolhi would not be speaking to the press for the duration of the 2015 season.
It was odd at the time because there wasn’t an explanation for the silence. Rais seemed fine when we talked to him in 2014, and there wasn’t anything to indicate that he had any kind of issue with the media. Even after the mistake he committed in last year’s crucial Chicago game, he remained in the locker room and spoke courteously with reporters afterward. He was professional and polite in the few times he interacted with the press.
Kevin Kinkead talks Union with KYW’s Matt Leon:
It’s true that Mbolhi was coming off a poor 2014 campaign in which he played only four games. He traveled back and forth to Africa for international duty and had a number of hiccups that severely disrupted his introduction to the team.
But this is a new season, and it’s fair to say that even the most skeptical of Union fans were ready to turn the page and see what the Algeria international had to offer in goal. Maybe he would be refreshed and focused after playing in the Africa Cup of Nations and then turning his full attention to Philadelphia.
That hasn’t been the case.
It’s been quite the opposite, with poor performances and bad body language through the first five fixtures.
We can talk all day about the positioning, the hesitation off the line, and the lack of initiative inside the six yard box. We can also talk about the defensive marking, which deserves a large share of the blame for this disappointing start. Philadelphia’s backline did not offer much help to its goalkeeper.
But the issue that trumps all others is this –
Rais Mbolhi should not have been signed in the first place.
And it doesn’t matter who signed him. It doesn’t matter if it was Nick Sakiewicz, or Jim Curtin, or Rene Meulensteen, or Jay Sugarman, or Chris Albright, or any combination of those five people.
The truth is that goalkeeping was not an area of concern for the Philadelphia Union in the summer of 2014. Zac MacMath had performed reasonably well and had not committed any glaring mistakes that directly cost the team points. In fact, his three penalty saves actually stole points for the Union. His penalty saves in the U.S. Open Cup saw the team into the final. He never got enough credit for that.
At one point, he was even playing in front of makeshift defense that included a forward (Aaron Wheeler), a midfielder (Amobi Okugo), a right back (Sheanon Williams), and another right back (Ray Gaddis).
Zac Macmath was the least of the problems in 2014.
Additionally, you had number one overall draft pick Andre Blake already sitting on the bench and waiting for his turn to play. Trading up for a goalkeeper was a move that was widely criticized even before Mbolhi ever set foot in the United States.
The Union needed offensive help, and some stability on the backline. They got the latter with Carlos Valdes’ return, plus the shift of Maurice Edu to center back. The team’s attack and overall depth needed bolstering, but instead the incredibly limited resources of Sugarman were spent on a foreign goalkeeper that came with a hefty price tag and a transfer fee.
Just like that, Zac MacMath was on the bench, and the top pick in the draft bumped off that bench and out of the gameday 18 entirely.
Even before then, Philadelphia had been trying to move MacMath for months, maybe even a full year. This goes all the way back to 2013 and the Oka Nikolov signing. MacMath’s value, if there was any, plummeted first with the selection of Blake, and second with the signing of Mbolhi. That’s why the club could not do any better than an intra-league loan to Colorado. A player that already did not carry much league-wide value was further marginalized.
That would leave Mbolhi and Blake as two foreign internationals, requiring the team to sign a young American to cover for national team absences. McCarthy was a smart pickup in that regard.
Through five games, Mbolhi’s save percentage of 50 is the worst among all starters in Major League Soccer. He’s conceded nine goals this year, some of which were certainly not his fault. But we were still waiting for him to make a save or make a play that changed the course of a game, and that didn’t happen. There wasn’t anything that truly distinguished him from Zac MacMath.
The most troubling thing might be the body language, which carried an almost sardonic or derisive feel. There’s a demonstrative frustration that shows up when the ball is in the back of the net, but nothing to complement that in a tactically preventative or organizational manner. Faryd Mondragon was certainly a loose cannon, but he commanded the respect of his defense. That didn’t seem to be the case with Mbolhi.
The solution seems simple enough. You sell or loan Rais when the summer transfer window opens up.
What other choice is there?
Even if his would game stabilize or improve, you still have Blake sitting on the bench. That’s a waste of talent and a waste of Generation Adidas status that grants financial exemptions.
And even if Mbolhi starts to come around, would the relationship with his teammates improve? Would he speak to the media?
In Major League Soccer, you don’t need to spend DP-level money on foreign goalkeeping. If there’s one thing that America produces consistently, it’s that position. We don’t create superstar field players, but some of the earliest and most successful American exports all played between the posts. We’re talking the likes of Tim Howard, Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, and Brad Guzan.
With a cap hit around $300,000, Mbolhi’s production isn’t even close to the financial resources this team has spent on him. The overall financial allocation, which I’m told reaches four-hundred, or even five-hundred thousand dollars, could be spent in much more important areas. Even $250,000 in cap space could get you a fringe starter and a depth piece, or one bona fide starter in defense or on the wing. No goalkeeper, not even Nick Rimando, commands that much financial allocation from his team.
The Union has lengthy history of poor signings and poor trades. Freddy Adu famously flamed out and haunted the 2013 budget. Juan Diego Gonzalez commanded a large salary and didn’t even play in 2011. Porfirio Lopez was benched after four games in 2012 and Lionard Pajoy was traded away when John Hackworth took over. Bakary Soumare, Gabriel Gomez, and Josue Martinez didn’t work out.
But none of those players commanded the salary or financial resources that Mbolhi commands. Those players were easily released or traded. Only Freddy Adu’s situation brought lingering, long-term problems and league-wide criticism. Even then, Adu showed much more promise on the field and would have benefited greatly from a legitimate threat at the striker position.
In this case, it’s hard to justify spending close to half a million dollars on a goalkeeper, after you already drafted a goalkeeper with the number one overall pick just seven months earlier.
It makes so much sense to sell Mbolhi and use the cap relief to beef up areas of need.
Because right now, this looks like the worst signing in franchise history.