[MLS SPOTLIGHT] The Philadelphia Union already has Zac MacMath, who at the age of 22 is starting his third season in goal and played 95 games. It traded up to select Jamaican Andre Blake as the No. 1 pick in the 2014 SuperDraft. But not satisfied with the two goalies, it signed two-time Algerian World Cup goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi to take over in the nets.
M'Bohli, who most recently played in Bulgaria, won't start Friday against Sporting Kansas City and he could be unavailable for several games while on national team duty in the fall, but he will take over as the Union's No. 1 keeper.
Why sign Mbolhi when the Union already had two keepers? Philly interim coach Jim Curtin said the 28-year-old Mbolhi picked the Union over UEFA Champions League teams, calling it a "no-brainer" to sign him when he could also help MacMath and Blake.
"[It] puts us in a position now to make a run at the playoffs," he said. "You think about our next 13 games are playoff games, that’s how we’re going to treat them -- there’s no room for error, there’s no margin for error."
The Union was 5-8-8 and tied for sixth place, heading into action on Wednesday night. It is 2-1-2 under Curtin after going 3-7-6 to start the season under John Hackworth, who was fired at the World Cup break. Curtin said the move to sign Mbolhi, born in Paris to a Congolese father and Algerian mother, was not taken without a lot of consideration.
"I had a good talk with Zac," he said. "It’s a hard discussion, but Zac’s a professional. He’s a young goalkeeper -- he’s still only 23 years old [next Wednesday], people forget that. He’s played a lot of games, but, we felt, as a staff and as a club, that this was a move that Zac and Andre could both learn from a player like Rais, who can pass down a litany of experience."
Blake's only experience has been in the Open Cup and in a friendly against Crystal Palace.
"I told Andre, listen, he’s played in two Open Cup games, he’s performed well," said Curtin. "He hasn’t been perfect. He understands that, he knows he has room to improve, he has room to grow. He’s a good kid."
Curtin, who wasn't the head coach when the Union picked Blake in the 2014 SuperDraft has no regrets about the selection, saying he was the best asset in the draft.
"And it wasn’t close at the time," he added. "When you speak to people in the know, every coach, every GM, and that was kind of our direction. He still has a bright future, it doesn’t mean it’s the end for Andre Blake by any means."
Curtin said either keeper could be shipped to the Union's USL PRO affiliate, Harrisburg or to the NASL on loan to get seasoning. "There’s 50 different ways you can get young goalkeepers games," he said.
He said the Union wasn't finished with looking to make moves before the transfer window closes next week. The No. 1 priority is a central defender, though Curtin said technical director Chris Albright was also looking for a striker.
Philadelphia came into the week first in the Eastern Conference in scoring but eighth out of 10 teams in goals allowed.
American fans will know Mbolhi as the goalkeeper from the 2010 World Cup match between the USA and Algeria in which Landon Donovan's stoppage-time goal sent the USA into the second round. Mbolhi was one of the stars on the Fennecs, who reached the second round for the first time at Brazil 2014. In particular, his game against Germany -- a 2-1 loss in overtime -- earned him a lot of suitors.
"I was really impressed because even in Bulgaria it’s not like this," he said. "They don’t have these kinds of stadiums, these kinds of facilities. I think a lot of clubs in Europe don’t have these kinds of facilities. That’s why I chose the Union."