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Once Atlanta United’s first player, Alex Tambakis is becoming a top USL goalkeeper

Dave Sarachan: “I don’t know that there’s too many better goalkeepers in the league.”

North Carolina FC goalkeeper Alex Tambakis calls out to his teammates on May 18, 2019 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

CARY, N.C. — There wasn’t much Dave Sarachan was happy about after his North Carolina FC squad played to a 0-0 draw with visiting expansion side Birmingham Legion FC on Saturday. NCFC was disjointed and sloppy at times, and couldn’t seem to finish easy chances.

“It was a frustrating night. I thought we should’ve walked away with three points tonight,” Sarachan said. “I didn’t think in the first half our soccer was as good as we could be. I thought we played a little slowly. I think we could’ve upped the tempo.”

But there was one player Sarachan could give deserved praise to. Goalkeeper Alex Tambakis kept NCFC in the game at WakeMed Soccer Park, making three saves in front of an announced crowd of 5,448 fans.

He wasn’t peppered with a barrage of shots all night, but when Birmingham came charging, Tambakis was there to answer.

“To be engaged in the game when you’re not being challenged a whole lot is a mental discipline,” Sarachan said. “(Tambakis) was alert on those plays and made two huge saves for us.”

Birmingham managed to get 10 shots off against North Carolina’s defense, but only three landed on target, and Tambakis was there to stop them from nestling up against the back of the net.

Tambakis showed off some acrobatics to stop the first shot, a hard attempt from outside the box by J.J. Williams in the 68th minute. Tambakis leapt up and pushed the ball over the crossbar with his right mitt.

In the 73rd minute, Tambakis was called on again as New England Revolution loaner Brian Wright fired a rocket from close range. Not only did the 26-year-old Greek halt the shot, but he gobbled it up, preventing a rebound.

“I just stood there,” Tambakis said. “Tried to see where (Wright) was going, guessed right and came up with it.”

Tambakis denied Birmingham’s final attempt at a goal, slapping away a free kick attempt from the right flank in the 95th minute. It was his fourth clean sheet of the season, tied for seventh most in the league.

“You never know what’s going to happen. One chance and they could end the game. You (can get) too calm,” Tambakis said. “That was a tough game.”

This is Tambakis’ second season with North Carolina FC — his fourth in the USL Championship — and he’s beginning to become one of the league’s top keepers. He’s 10th in saves with 26 through nine matches this season. He has an 81.3 percent save rate — which is up 15 points from last season — six catches, seven clearances and one punch-away. He’s also been 65.7 percent successful on his 289 passes.

Earlier this season, on May 4, Tambakis had a five-save performance on the road to notch a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw against Indy Eleven. He had four saves on April 20 in a 3-0 win over the Charlotte Independence.

North Carolina FC is in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with a goal differential of plus-eight. And Tambakis is a big reason why it has been successful in Sarachan’s first season at the helm, on track to make the playoffs.

Tambakis came up in the academy of the Athens, Greece-based club Panathinaikos. On Jan. 25, 2016, he became Atlanta United FC’s first signing, as the MLS club was in the early stages of piecing its initial roster together. At the time, Atlanta technical director Carlos Bocanegra told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “We see him as a project but one who can definitely come in and have the upside we are looking for.”

But Atlanta United never got the chance to see Tambakis being even close to a finished product. Atlanta loaned him to the Charleston Battery for the 2016 season, and he appeared with the Five Stripes just once in 2017, seeing 28 minutes of emergency action in a 2-3 loss to Minnesota United on Oct. 4, after starter Kyle Reynish picked up a red card.

Atlanta declined the option on Tambakis’ contract after the 2017 season and then traded his MLS rights to Sporting Kansas City. Tambakis never played for SKC, and instead signed with North Carolina FC and became the team’s top goalkeeper, starting in 34 games in 2018.

Tambakis has improved his game since being discarded by MLS. The player one league deemed as trash has become a treasure — a rock between the pipes — for North Carolina FC.

“Alex is a terrific goalkeeper,” Sarachan said. “I don’t know that there’s too many better goalkeepers in the league.”

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