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October 19, 2011 By:
Two Zachs, One Goal
The Philadelphia Union's practice last week had been finished for more than 20 minutes, but rookie goalie Zac MacMath was still on the field, working to strengthen a shoulder that's been susceptible to injury.
In one exercise, the 20-year-old got down on the turf as if he were starting a push-up, placing his right hand on a soccer ball, a far less sturdy source of support than the ground. Instead of lowering his body, he just held himself in place for several minutes. Most people would quiver and shake if they attempted such a feat, but MacMath's body remained nearly still.
Though practice typically lasts about two hours, a player's job is rarely done, said MacMath who, according to the Union, is the lone Jewish goalie in Major League Soccer.
"I really think it takes up all day," he said. "If we are not training or doing soccer stuff, we are worrying about our bodies and getting ready for the next day -- making sure you're sleeping enough, getting hydrated -- a lot of things go into it than most people realize," said MacMath, who grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., though his father hails from Philadelphia.
The entire team's efforts have appeared to pay off.
The Union, in just its second season, secured its first playoff spot on Oct. 14 with a 1-1 tie against Toronto; the post-season gets under way on Oct. 26.
MacMath is not the only Jewish member of the team -- nor is he the only Zachary.
In December, the Union acquired 16-year-old Zach Pfeffer, an Upper Dublin High School student and one of the youngest players ever to land a Major League Soccer contact. At the time, team officials said they were investing in a player they hoped would become a star. It wasn't clear if he would play this year, but he has seen some action on the field.
Not long after landing Pfeffer, the team drafted MacMath, who had decided to turn professional after spending three years at the University of Maryland. He said he plans to complete his economics degree online.
"It's pretty unusual for both of us to be named Zach and for both to be Jewish," MacMath said after a recent practice at the team's indoor training site in King of Prussia. "I've met his family, they're very nice. We just have that good Jewish connection."
MacMath, whose mother is Jewish and his father Catholic, considers himself Jewish. He grew up celebrating both Chanukah and Christmas and became a Bar Mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue in St. Petersburg.
He said it was his father who encouraged him to play in the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel,
The American Maccabiah team failed to medal that year. Union fans are clearly hoping this team does better.
Sports fans need no reminder that the Phillies' October dreams ended with a heartbreaking ground out on Kol Nidre and that the much-hyped Eagles have gotten off to a slower start than expected.
One thing is for sure -- the Union represents the region's last chance to claim a major sports title in 2011.
While not as well known as other area franchises, the Union has a dedicated fan base. Games at the 18,000-seat PPL Park in Chester regularly sell out, and there has even been talk of enlarging the stadium to accommodate more spectators.
The Union acquired MacMath to be a backup for 40-year-old Faryd Mondragon, but when the team captain went down with an injury last month, MacMath was thrust into the starting role.
Though he gave up four goals in his first start, MacMath helped the team go undefeated down the stretch. Mondragon returned to the lineup in the most recent match and is expected to start in the playoffs.
"I took the opportunity and tried to make the most of it," said the young goalie.
With a single game left in the regular season, MacMath added, "We are just taking it one day at a time and working our way to the MLS Cup."