By JOEL HOOVER
The Philadelphia Union have lacked an experienced goalkeeper since the departure of Faryd Mondragon, leaving starter Zac MacMath and backup Chris Konopka without much in the way of tutelage and instruction.
The Union filled that void Wednesday morning, as the team confirmed the signing of Macedonian goalkeeper Oka Nikolov, a 19-year veteran of German club Eintracht Frankfurt.
“We’re really excited that we have our first summer signing in Oka,” manager John Hackworth said at his weekly press conference. “He is first and foremost a fantastic person, something we believe very strongly in when we bring people into the club. I’m impressed with him as a person as much as I am by his playing record.”
Hackworth was quick to point out that MacMath is still the unquestioned starter on the team despite later admitting concerns over his confidence. However, the manager believes Nikolov will be able to help mentor both MacMath and Konopka, while possibly supplanting them for some game action.
“Both Zac and Chris are two guys who we believe strongly in, but it’s going to help to have someone with (Nikolov’s) experience to push those two players—not only in training, but to push them for playing time,” Hackworth said.
Nikolov will be eligible to play after the summer transfer window opens, on July 9.
Here are some other notes from the Philadelphia Union’s weekly press conference:
“DIFFICULT” STRETCH IN THE COMING DAYS
After 18 days off from league play—with a few friendlies and a U.S. Open Cup match sprinkled in-between—the Philadelphia Union return to MLS action with a stretch of games against some of the top teams in the league.
The stretch begins with the Union hosting Interstate 95 rival New York Red Bulls in a Sunday afternoon match and Western Conference leaders FC Dallas on June 29. Two big road tests out West follow, as Philadelphia travels to Real Salt Lake on July 3, then to Houston to face the Dynamo on July 6.
“We think it’s going to be a very difficult stretch—maybe one of the most difficult stretches of the year we will have,” Hackworth acknowledged. Dallas leads the Western Conference and Supporter’s Shield standings with RSL just a point behind them, while New York and Houston sit second and fourth in the East, separated by just three points and with the Union sandwiched between them in third.
“We’re going to have to go through these four and face four really good opponents,” Hackworth said. “But we’ve done that this year so far, and while it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, I like where we are. I like our chances.”
Hackworth also referenced a similar stretch in league play last June through July, when the Union traveled to Houston and lost 2-1 before bouncing back to defeat the Los Angeles Galaxy 2-1 on the road just four days later.
This year’s big-game stretch starts in a nationally televised match at home against the Red Bulls on Sunday. A win would leave the Union tied with New York in the standings with a game in hand. The Union have lost their last five matches with their I-95 rivals to the north, with their last victory coming in a 1-0 home win in April 2011 thanks to a Roger Torres goal. Getting a result would be viewed as a major step toward validation, especially on the big stage.
“(This game) puts a lot of opportunity out there for us,” said Hackworth of the impending derby match this Sunday. “This is a big chance for a young team…we constantly scrap, even within our on fan base, for the respect I think we deserve a lot more of.
“We’re third in the East…we’re sixth in the Supporter’s Shield. If you would have asked me back in February if I’d have taken those two stats going into this stretch of games, I would have said, ‘Absolutely, I’ll take it.'”
- The Union picked up a 4-2 win Tuesday night against USL PRO affiliate club Harrisburg City Islanders, with Brian Caroll, Sebastien Le Toux, Antoine Hoppenot, and Roger Torres all scoring for Philadelphia at the Skyline Sports Complex in Harrisburg.
- Hackworth pinned the Union giving up the second-most goals in the league this season as a result of both the thin depth of the defense, as well as the league’s emphasis on goals scored over goal difference. Speaking on the defense’s depth, he also mentioned that Aaron Wheeler continued to play well in that position in their friendly with Harrisburg.
- Kleberson’s recovery from injury has been slow, but Hackworth said that he is in training and they “hope” he will be 100% for Sunday.
What do you make of these notes? Do you see Nikolov eventually starting this season? What are the Union’s chances against RBNY, FC Dallas, RSL, and the Dynamo without Keon Daniel?
Share your thoughts below.