Zac MacMath is nothing if not resilient.
After all, his first season as the Philadelphia Union's starter in goal didn't exactly get off to a splendid start, as the club kicked off the year with three consecutive losses, during which the 20-year-old experienced some notable growing pains.
MacMath, however, knew not to let the struggles overwhelm him. After spending most of his rookie season watching from the sidelines as the backup to veteran Faryd Mondragon, he learned not to grow too anxious when the going gets tough. This is just the beginning, he told himself, of a long, productive season — and career.
"There was a lot of learning about just being patient," MacMath said of his rookie year, during which he made just seven starts. "Building that patience last year has helped me in knowing that I'm going to make mistakes, I'm going to be good in games and have bad games and whatnot."
Since the end of that three-game rough patch, MacMath has strung together three straight shutouts as the Union have improved to 2-3-1, getting right back in the thick of the Eastern Conference race.
Perhaps no outing has been as impressive for MacMath and the Union back line as Saturday's 1-0 win at Chivas USA, during which the second-year goalkeeper notched five saves to secure the clean sheet, despite Philadelphia receiving two red cards in the final 15 minutes.
"I tried to convince you all five weeks ago that he was the man who is going to be between the posts," coach Peter Nowak said during a press conference Wednesday. "I think some of you believed me and some of you don't. That's normal. I never stopped believing in that."
For MacMath, the faith his coach has shown in him has been crucial. In fact, the day it was announced this past offseason that the club would be parting ways with Mondragon, MacMath received a call from goalkeeper coach Rob Vartughian telling the Florida native that the coaching staff had full confidence in him to take over the No. 1 role.
"That was really important to me," MacMath recalled, "and very satisfying."
The Union's early skid, however, wasn't the only setback MacMath suffered at the start of this season. A veteran of the U.S. youth national team setup, MacMath was left off the U.S. under-23 national team squad last month that ultimately failed to qualify for this summer's London Olympics, as D.C. United's Bill Hamid and the Chicago Fire's Sean Johnson got the nod instead.
"It was obviously a disappointment," MacMath said. "But it actually worked out better for me, I think, because it gave me a chance to just focus on the Union and not have to worry about two teams or traveling or this or that."
In the years to come, though, it's a safe bet MacMath's name will continue to surface in the U.S. national team discussion, considering the composure and skill-set he has already developed at such a young age. He already has had the chance to see first-hand what it takes to be the United States' starter in net, having experienced two training stints with English side Everton alongside that club's goalkeeper, U.S. national team incumbent Tim Howard.
"He's been put in a good situation," Union right back Sheanon Williams said. "Now it's his time. Regardless of age, if you can play, you can play. He's definitely shown us that he's our starter and that he's going to be a good goalie for a long time."
Such high expectations have surrounded MacMath since day one, when he was taken by the Union with the fifth overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft after he posted a 0.65 goals against average in three years at the University of Maryland, winning an NCAA title as a freshman.
But MacMath tries to ignore such outside pressure. Once the opening whistle blows, it's all about what he expects of himself.
"I just try to take my experiences and my abilities into every game and just play the way that I've known for the last 15 years of my life," MacMath said. "And I just put everything that I can into each game and don't worry about everyone else."