As the 2016 MLS season winds down, Zac MacMath is exactly where he hoped he would be.
He's the starting goalkeeper for the Colorado Rapids, who will face the Seattle Sounders in the first leg of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday. His play over the course of the campaign has gotten stellar reviews, and his numbers, including a GAA of 0.76, compare favorably to any keeper in the league.
But while the endpoint is just as MacMath envisioned, the journey has been straight out of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles."
Heading into the 2016 campaign, MacMath thought he was going to be the starter. Clint Irwin had been traded to Toronto in the preseason. There were no more obstacles in his path. Then the rumors started. Tim Howard, the iconic U.S. international, was coming to Colorado. Those rumors became reality, and MacMath then faced a harsh truth. He would be the starter over the first half of the season, but then Howard would take over when the transfer window opened in July. He would be the valet to the race-car driver that is Howard, and no amount of outstanding play was going to change that.
But then last week, Howard sustained an adductor injury while on international duty, ruling him out for the remainder of the playoffs. All of a sudden, MacMath has been thrust back into the spotlight, and he'll be leaned on heavily to help the Rapids get the kind of result that will set them up well for the second leg.
"It's exciting. I'm happy to be training again with the first team on a regular basis," said MacMath in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC. "It's exciting for me to have this chance. Seattle is a completely different team than we played earlier in the year by adding some new players and a coaching change. I think it's kind of a clean slate, and both teams are playing very well right now. It should be a great battle."
The amount of mental fortitude MacMath showed can't be overstated. The reasons for acquiring a player of Howard's reputation go well beyond what he can deliver on the field. There are financial considerations that affect the team's bottom line. But for MacMath, it was still the ultimate rejection.
"Just finding out that Tim was definitely coming, and no matter what, I wasn't going to get a chance to continue to play, no matter how I was playing, that's a pretty tough pill to swallow," he said.
Fortunately for MacMath -- or perhaps unfortunately -- he has plenty of experience digesting tough pills. His time with the Philadelphia Union saw a parade of goalkeepers brought in to supplant him. And Howard wasn't the first World Cup goalkeeper with whom MacMath has had to compete. In midseason, the Union brought in Algeria national team goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi to be the No. 1. Earlier that season, the Union drafted Andre Blake with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 SuperDraft.
"I've had to work with guys that I thought I was better than, and I thought the team was better with me," he said of his time with the Union. "It was an easy memory to recall, and I continued to work hard because I continued to play and kept that mental capacity to stay ready."
MacMath said one of the lowest periods this season came right after Howard arrived. The team was in first place, and aside from a hiccup right after the Howard deal was announced in March, he had played solidly and at times spectacularly.
"It was tough for a couple of weeks just getting used to working with [Howard] and not holding a grudge," he said.
So MacMath adopted the same approach he took in Philly. Friends, family and teammates helped him get over the emotional impact of his demotion. In terms of his game, he took on extra work in a bid to stay sharp, whether that was extra shooting practice at the end of training or strength work in the middle of the week.
"Getting the extra reps that I wasn't getting in the game, I think that's helped me a ton and makes me feel as prepared as I did five or six months ago," he said.
All this has done plenty to impress manager Pablo Mastroeni. It was Mastroeni who broke the news to MacMath when Howard was signed, and he called it a "tough decision" to bench the goalkeeper. It would be more accurate to say it was a tough conversation to have with a player who had done nothing wrong and everything right. It's even more difficult to keep said player committed to the bigger goal of winning a championship.
"It takes a man to take that kind of information, given his performances, and not sulk, and not throw his toys, and not run out of the room and slam doors," said Mastroeni on a conference call with reporters. "To look at someone in the face and say, 'OK, this is your decision? All right, I'm a teammate. I'm a team player. I've got to respect that. I don't necessarily agree with this, but I respect it. And I'm going to go out every day, and I'm going to prove to myself every day that I'm worthy of being a starter on this team.' That's what he's done. It's about attitude, it's about mentality, it's about earning the right to be on the field."
MacMath did admit that an opportunity presented itself in August to leave the Rapids for an Israeli team, but Colorado said no.
"I was more than OK with that," he said. "It would have been a great opportunity, but here I am, getting a chance to play in the Western Conference finals. It seems like everything happened for a reason."
It has left Mastroeni marveling at the circuitous nature of MacMath's journey.
"It's almost ironic that we sit here today, and Tim is injured, and Zac now has the opportunity to step into goal in this type of situation," he said. "Credit to Zac for being very strong mentally and prepared to be in this position."
It's the place MacMath hoped he'd be in all along.