500 saves later, 30-year-old Zac MacMath stands between the sticks at the beautiful Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minnesota beneath the boisterous Wonderwall. Minnesota United striker Luis Amarilla lays off a sizzling one touch pass to put MNUFC winger Bongokuhle Hlongwane through on goal down the right side of the pitch. Hlongwane takes a couple touches as he curls down the wing toward MacMath’s goal. The roar of the home crowd rises behind him as Hlongwane squares up the Real Salt Lake goalkeeper and unleashes a low shot on goal. MacMath covers the near post, makes himself big and blocks what would’ve been Minnesota’s fourth goal of the night. The score remains 3-0. In the next eight minutes, RSL would score two goals and come tantalizingly close to finding an equalizer. While RSL couldn't find that third goal in the final moments of the match, MacMath’s four saves helped give his Club the chance to steal a point on the road. Even when the chips were down, MacMath refused to quit.
500 saves earlier is somewhat the beginning of a full circle. 20-year-old MacMath’s career kick starts at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah playing for the Philadelphia Union. The rookie who was drafted 5th overall in the MLS Superdraft eight months earlier was called into duty at halftime after an injury to starting goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón. Four minutes in, he would make his first save against a shot from Paulo Jr which was assisted by Kyle Beckerman. While Union lost the match, MacMath would make three saves and hold RSL scoreless in the second half.
This was the start of a journey for the current Real Salt Lake goalkeeper that would zigzag, turn, twist and bend. Many times, when it seemed the path of MacMath’s MLS career was about to become much more clear, it instead only got murkier, or even seemed to vanish all together. Still, he persisted.
Between a career that started at the RioT and a career that was reborn at the RioT is 500 saves.
Here’s how Zac MacMath reached this milestone and found exactly where he needed to be.
MacMath was born in St. Petersburg, Florida to two mental health workers, Marcia and Gary MacMath. While a lot of talk about the veteran goalkeeper around the Real Salt Lake training ground revolves around his exceptional performance this season, if you mention MacMath’s name to RSL’s Director of Community and Engagement, Kyle Schroeder, he’ll gush about the work the goalkeeper has done off the field in the community. For MacMath, this was ingrained in him from an early age.
“What you are seeing on the field is what comes through at community events,” said Schroeder. "As we are packing meals Zac is there organizing the lines, pushing everyone for their best work, and just getting the job done.”
MacMath has won three club Humanitarian of the Year awards, most recently last year with RSL. And while giving back was something taught to him by his parents, so was the game of soccer. Especially, his father, who was a three-year starter in goal for Penn State.
At the high school level, MacMath was a standout goalkeeper at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida before starting at the University of Maryland where he’d win a national title.
From there MacMath was drafted 5th overall to the Philadelphia Union in 2011 and where for the better part of four seasons, he’d be the starter in net for Philly. The young goalkeeper quickly racked up 103 appearances for the Union, and MacMath’s career seemed to be on a steady trajectory towards the top.
In a peculiar move, Philadelphia then chose to sign Algerian goalkeeper Raïs Mbolhi and draft their eventual current starting goalkeeper, Andre Blake. With three goalkeepers on the roster, MacMath was deemed the odd-man-out and was sent to the Colorado Rapids on loan where he would eventually spend the next four years.
Following his first season in the Rockies, MacMath would go on to win the starting job and a third of the way through the season, was leading MLS in shutouts. This didn’t last long however after Colorado decided to sign U.S Men’s National Team goalkeeping legend and star of the 2014 World Cup, Tim Howard. Again, MacMath was sent to the bench.
To say that these consecutive roadblocks didn’t mean any to MacMath would be a lie. Even national soccer journalists have written “creatively” about what his career may have been like if one or two things might’ve happened a little differently.
“I think any player can look back and say well if one thing goes right, if you do one little thing better here or you have one better touch there and their career could be completely different,” said MacMath.
“But I think we all have these things happen for a reason and that's just how the universe works. The biggest challenge is probably the number of times I've gotten knocked down. Not necessarily having my spot taken from me because of bad play, but just out of necessity and continuing to keep going. That's something that I hope other young goalkeepers, other young players can learn from. To just keep going. It's a hard business to be a part of. You never know when your chance might come again.”
For MacMath, it didn’t seem like that chance might come again, until it did back where it all started, at Real Salt Lake.
Following Colorado, MacMath kept going. He would be traded to Vancouver in 2019 and then again to Real Salt Lake in 2020. MacMath spent 2021 backing up young RSL goalkeeper David Ochoa before being thrust into the starting XI to start the 2022 season following an injury to Ochoa. In a reverse of what had happened most of his career, MacMath was now the one who had a chance to come in and claim the starting job.
“I’ve learned a lot over the years,” said MacMath. “The most important thing is when you get your opportunity, you have to take it and I think I've done that this year. I just want to continue to help the team win, stay solid back there and be someone that the team can depend on.”
Since the start of the season, MacMath has become one of RSL’s most dependable and consistent performers which has helped launch the Club into third place in the Western Conference. As of July 4th, MacMath is currently tied for first in the league in saves, tied for second in clean sheets and according to fbref.com, third in save percentage.
From backup goalkeeper to one of the best in the league in the blink of an eye, the wisdom MacMath gained throughout his MLS career from save 1 to save 500, rang true. When opportunity comes, take it.
“There probably weren't a lot of expectations for me at the beginning of the season, and I think it's about making a point to each other and ourselves to prove people wrong across the league,” said MacMath.
MacMath continues to prove people wrong, like he’s done throughout his career, and now finds himself in a career year and fulfilling the promise he showed one sunny day at the RioT back in 2011. Even when the results don’t go the way the Club would hope, like most recently against Minnesota, his RSL teammates knows they have a goalkeeper that won’t quit, especially when times get tough. Frankly, as he’s shown over his career, he wouldn’t know how to. He just keeps going, on the field and off.
If you’ve hopped on the Zac MacMath bandwagon along the way, take a second to stop and enjoy the view. The journey continues next week against Colorado, but for now just look how far he’s come. 500 saves later.