While we've waited and prepared for the upcoming SuperDuperDraft, the question of whether the Sounders should take a serious look at drafting Maryland Goalkeeper Zac MacMath has come up a number of times.
There are some apparently strong arguments for it. When he was a U-17 player, he was the starter for the United States U-17 team, including at the U-17 World Cup in 2007 (along with Josh Lambo). This season, after Sean Johnson graduated out, he slotted in as the starter for the US U-20 team — including at the 2010 Milk Cup, which the US won. And as we speak, he's at the January U-20 training camp in Florida. So the US youth national team coaches seem to agree that he's one of if not the best young keepers in the country.
Furthermore, the Sounders are a team with a long-term keeper problem. Keller has agreed to a one-year extension which will almost certainly be his last. His backup is Terry Boss, who may be the future, but who had some shaky games in the latter stages of the CCL and hasn't shown the kind of development that would make anyone comfortable handing him the keys to the net for a team that wants to contend for MLS Cup every season. Behind him is Ryan Herman, who seems to be developing nicely for the U-18 Academy team and about whom everyone has nice things to say, but who is likely very far away from starting an MLS match. So the potential of a year under Keller for MacMath and then a shot to prove to be starting quality seems to make sense.
On the other hand, there are arguments against. Keeper doesn't seem to be a particularly highly prized position in MLS. There are no keeper DPs. The average salary for a starter hovers around $150K. MLS Cup champion Matt Pickens made 137 and 2nd place Kevin Hartman made 80. It's a position that the US seems to produce a lot of quality in relative to other positions on the field. And keepers peak later than any other position, meaning that a young draftee will likely involve much more investment in training before you get your pick's worth. And there are older internationals hovering around — like Northwest local Marcus Hahnemann — who are already nearer their prime and can likely be had. And keepers can be unreliable. Chris Seitz has had some serious growing pains as a young starter.
Recently, I've come down on the pro side of the argument. You just don't get many chances to draft a U-20 international starter. But I wanted to look at the track record of our U-20 starters, to see what the success rate was. So here's a compilation of some starters for the U-20 team over the years, and where they are now:
|2009||Brian Perk||Drafted in the 4th rd by Union, then waived. Now a backup for the Galaxy.|
|2009||Sean Johnson||Drafted in the 4th rd by the Fire. Now the starter.|
|2008||Josh Lambo||Drafted in the 1st rd by Dallas. Never appeared. Loaned out to FC Tampa Bay.|
|2008||Bill Hamid||Signed out of DC Academy. Youngest ever keeper to win an MLS game. Will fight with Cronin for job.|
|2007||Chris Seitz||Drafted in 1st rd by RSL. Traded to Philly. Started, but was shaky. Sounder for a day. Now in Dallas fighting for that job.|
|2006||Steve Sandbo||Declined invite to MLS combine. Now an investment banker|
|2004-5||Quentin Westberg||Played entire career in France thanks to dual citizenship. Fighting for starting jobs at Ligue 2 sides for years now.|
|2002-3||Steve Cronin||Drafted in 1st rd by Earthquakes, then traded to Galaxy, where he was mostly a backup for 3ish seasons. Then the Timbers. Now competing with Hamid in DC.|
|2000-1||DJ Countess||Signed with NY in 2001, where he backed up Howard. Traded to Dallas where he started one great season. Then expansion drafted to RSL, where he started for a year. Went to Europe then Argentina, bouncing around as a backup.|
So the track record is not great. Of course, these aren't all equivalent talents. Some U-20 squads are better than others. But even the consensus 1st rounders don't have a particularly good track record. Lambo, Seitz, and Cronin were first rounders and Countess was a GA player back before they called it that. Of the 4, none have had more than a couple of seasons starting in goal. Lambo seems to have disappeared. Countess has definitely disappeared. Cronin has only just now come into his prime while Seitz is fighting for playing time.
That's a record that tells me there's not a lot of upside in drafting young keepers. You might get lucky with a Sean Johnson. But Countess had a Sean Johnson-like year or two with Dallas and then he was done. And more likely you'll shepherd a player through some significant growing pains just in time to trade him away to some other team to reap the benefits. So I'm backing off on my endorsement of drafting MacMath. Of course, that means he'll probably be the next Tim Howard for some club like the Dynamo.