The Colorado Rapids won’t miss Tim Howard, thanks to Zac MacMath

Russell Isabella/Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

For most teams, losing a starting goalkeeper in the middle of playoffs is a nightmare scenario. For the Colorado Rapids, not only should it not be a big deal, but there’s reason to think they will remain as solid as ever in net.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard’s season is over after suffering an adductor injury just as the Rapids prepare for the MLS conference finals – but waiting in the wings is the man who deserves credit for helping the Rapids get to the playoffs in the first place. That man is 24-year-old Zac MacMath, who led the Rapids to a very good 9-2-5 record and was on a stunning 11-game unbeaten streak when Howard arrived. The younger goalkeeper was in the best form of his career when he was abruptly demoted, and the Rapids will have to hope on Tuesday that MacMath can pick up where he left off.

The Rapids brought in 37-year-old Howard in July from Everton on an expensive Designated Player deal, and they did it despite not really needing him, thanks to MacMath. The frustration for the younger goalkeeper was palpable as he told the press he felt it didn’t matter what he did in net – Howard was going to steal his spot. The counterargument was that, in addition to Howard’s name-recognition that would help boost ticket sales, he was a better, more experienced goalkeeper.

But to put the comparison of the two goalkeepers into perspective, here is a guessing game courtesy of statistician Paul Carr:

If you guessed MacMath was the goalkeeper in the left column, you were wrong. The goalkeeper with a lower save percentage, more goals allowed and more expected allowed goals is Howard. Both goalkeepers played 17 games this season and MacMath was the more solid choice.

Although stats can be difficult to read too much into, they backup the eye test in this case, and that is what has made MacMath’s midseason demotion to clear way for Howard particularly cruel. MacMath was excellent as a starter for the Rapids first 16 games of the season. By the time Howard arrived to take over for MacMath, the young goalkeeper had allowed just 11 goals in those 16 games, for a league low goals-against average of 0.69.

That’s not to say that MacMath was the best goalkeeper in MLS and again, goalkeeper numbers are hazy. He benefited greatly from a stout defense in front of him and a style of play that kept the Rapids from giving up too many high-quality scoring chances. But Howard inherited most of those same things and didn’t improve upon MacMath’s numbers, outlining just how close the two goalkeepers actually are in terms of quality.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard leaves the USA's game vs. Mexico due to injury on November 14, 2016. (Photo by Joe Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports)

Howard is universally regarded as an excellent goalkeeper and he deserves his own credit for getting the Rapids to Tuesday’s Western Conference final – it was Howard who came up huge to make two saves in a penalty kick shootout that decided the semifinals against the LA Galaxy. But he didn’t arrive to Colorado in top form either – when Copa America kicked off in June, national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann had Brad Guzan start in goal every game because Howard had been struggling. At Everton, before Howard made the move to the Rapids, frustrated Toffee fans would sarcastically cheer when Howard made routine catches.

In other words, Howard has been on his way down in form from a very high ceiling while the young MacMath has been on the rise. For now, the goalkeepers are very close in what they can do for the Rapids and there should be no drop off by moving from Howard to MacMath in the middle of playoffs.

Sure, MacMath may still be error prone, as younger goalkeepers can be, but it’s hard to even say that with any conviction now. After all, he rose to the challenge of being a consistent starter and impressed in every way possible in the first half of the season. Now the Rapids will just have to hope putting him on the bench for the last four months hasn’t shaken his confidence or form.

Zac MacMath kicks the ball to goalkeeper Tim Howard during warm-ups before Howard's debut match for the Rapids in July. (Photo by Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports)

Frustrated by a demotion despite playing well enough to have earned the No. 1 goalkeeper spot, MacMath tried to leave Colorado in the summer transfer window. The Rapids blocked the move, forcing the 24-year-old to spend most of this year on the bench even as he hit the best form of his career.

Now, MacMath is back in the mix in time to make good on the progress he built earlier this year. He was responsible for helping build the Rapids’ stunning early lead on the Western Conference table that got them into the playoffs, and now he can finish the postseason off. If the Rapids do win an MLS Cup and MacMath is the one standing on the field, it would be poetic justice, indeed.