Late decision gives Mbolhi his first Union start

All week the Union were leaning toward starting Zac MacMath in goal in Sunday’s game against the San Jose Earthquakes, but two-time Algerian World Cup goalie Rais Mbolhi convinced interim manager Jim Curtin that he was ready to make his Major League Soccer debut.

So Mbolhi was the keeper in a 4-2 win over the Earthquakes, where the Union’s offense was the true story, with Sebastien Le Toux recording a goal and three assists and Andrew Wenger adding two goals. The Union are now 7-9-9 (30 points), just one point out of the fifth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

While Mbolhi may not have been spectacular, Curtin gave him more than passing grades in his debut. San Jose, which trailed 2-0 scored on a side-volley bullet from Sam Cronin and on a volley from in front by an unmarked Chris Wondolowski 

“I thought he was sharp,” Curtin said of Mbolhi. “I thought he was ready. It was more defensive breakdowns than anything.” 

Curtin said he didn’t decide until late Saturday evening to start Mbolhi. 

“He looked me in the eye and said he wanted to play,” Curtin said. “That’s enough for me and I thought he did a good job tonight.” 

Mboli signed on July 30, and after spending a brief time with the Union in workouts, returned to France, where he first encountered a delay due to his visa and then was involved in a minor car accident.

“I thought it was only going to take a few days, I wasn’t expecting for it to take that long,” Mbolhi said.

On Wednesday Mbolhi returned to Philadelphia, but didn’t practice until the next day. The Union had off from practice on Thursday, but Mbolhi worked with goalie coach B.J. Callahan. On Friday Mboli practiced with the Union. 

The next day it was decided he would play, his first game since Algeria lost in extra time, 2-1 to Germany in a round of 16 World Cup game on June 30.

“He knows he needs a game,” Curtin said. “It’s important to get a game after you’ve been away so long.”

And that extended absence contributed to make the task even harder for the Union keeper.

“It was really difficult because as you know I came really late, but they told me that I had to play tonight, so I had to be focused,” Mbolhi said.

Curtin says the Union will be without Mbolhi, 28, the next two games while he competes for Algeria in the African Cup of Nations.

Knowing that Mbolhi will be leaving, weighed a little bit into the decision to play him on Sunday, Curtin said.

Mbolhi was glad to make his MLS debut and was heartened by the enthusiastic response he received from the crowd of 17.421 at PPL Park.

“I’m really happy to see this atmosphere of the fans and we won the three points, so I’m very happy today,” Mbolhi said. 

The Union’s next two games are a back-to-back series with Toronto FC on Sept. 3 and 6, with the first game at PPL Park.

Zac MacMath, who has appeared in 23 of the Union’s 25 MLS games this season after starting all 34 last year, is a more than capable replacement and will play a big role as the Union makes a playoff push in its final nine games.