There are plenty of different ways to score a goal in soccer and 20-year-old Jack McInerney has used about all of them in 2013. The Philadelphia Union striker has taken the easy feed, the tough header and even beaten a one-on-two break. The results have surprised fans across the MLS and delighted the home town crowd at rowdy PPL Park. McInerney leads the league with 10 goals and took home Player of the Month honors in both April and May, a feat only accomplished twice before in league history. And while this year’s campaign is still a couple matches shy of the half-way mark, McInerney’s name has already begun to come-up in MVP conversations.
This is heady territory for a player who, only a season ago, was struggling to make it onto the pitch with the “A” team under departed head coach Peter Nowak.
But it’s not just the numbers that have caught everyone’s eyes, it’s the way McInerney is achieving those numbers. Like other far more senior scoring stars, the Union’s young goal machine has brought something special to his drives, often having to settle the ball out of the air in traffic and bull perfect shots through a thicket of flailing legs. McInerney has also shown a seemingly veteran brand of creativity. While most of his goals begin with his knack for finding open space and end with his ability to drill pin-point shots, you get the impression that in any situation, the youngster is always thinking two moves ahead of the defense and is always looking for that sudden, unusual chance. Never was this more obvious than in the nation’s capital on April 21st, when McInerney, sprung down the middle by a tip from Conor Casey, took on two defenders and faked them both out with a behind the left foot flick to the open field and a laser shot from close range.
Going to a Union game these days is a little like catching Gretzky’s Oilers in their prime, or the Doctor J-led Sixers back in the 80s; on any given day, McInerney is liable to do something you’ve never quite seen before.
GOAL PARADE: The Union had already scored the first two goals of the season before Jack Mac even got rolling, but in a sign of things to come, his initial strike was a game-winner. He iced a victory in frozen Colorado on a feed from Antoine Hoppenot, finding open space on a rush and blasting a low drive on the run past sprawling Rapids’ netminder Matt Pickens. He then stuffed his third-career game-winner against New England off a Le Toux corner kick. In what is becoming a signiture trait, McInerney headed the ball off the goalie but stayed alert in case the first try didn’t work; he was able to reach high with his leg and bounce-in the rebound. An easy set-up from Danny Cruz against Columbus came next, then a drilled rebound in stoppage time at home against Toronto, followed by the two-man fake-out in D.C.. McInerney rewarded goalkeeper Zac MacMath’s best effort of the season in bluastery Chicago, taking a lov from Le Toux at his feet, settling the ball and firing it in for a 1-0 win. A week later at home, it was a game-winning header off another Le Toux feed that did the trick. Number 9 came in Montreal off a nice flurry of passing from Williams, Le Toux and Michael Farfan who found McInerney typically lurking in the open away from the play. Fittingly, number 10 was another life saver, a stoppage-time missile through traffic that (you’ve heard this before) required the ball to be calmly settled from mid-air prior to the draw-salvaging strike.
Did you notice? The ten goals came in ten different matches. McInerney tends to score in big moments, and manages to assume an important role in most of his club’s efforts. This more than anything may be what separates him from the rest of the field. The young scorer only has a one-goal lead over the next best, veteran Montreal forward Marco Di Vaio, but as Union fans remember well, 3 of Di Vaio’s goals came all at once at home against Philadelphia. Montreal has had to do without his contributions far more often the Union does without McInerney. What better measuring stick is there for an MVP?
NOT PERFECT: But before wrapping a bed of roses around Jack Mac’s young neck, it’s right to point-out that the striker occasionally shows his youth. There are missed opportunities and poor decisions. On a couple of instances, McInerney has been guilty of winding-up and firing from distance rather than looking for a teammate. And there was a sadly missed opportunity in Chicago when the forward allowed a nicely played ball to hit him in the back rather than stepping aside so it could fall in front of him for what would’ve been an open shot. McInerney is also a key member of a club that has had the uncanny abilty to collectively go to sleep on ball controll for long periods of soccer at times this season and he has to accept at least a fraction of the blame for that.
And again, the Union has still not reached the half-way point of the season and a lot still needs to happen before the Philadelphia striker can be seriously considered as this year’s best. He’s needs to maintain his consistency over a much longer haul, and youthful inexperience is always a threat to even the best of starts. As the season winds-down, for example, McInerney’s ability to continue coming-up big in high-pressure, make or break matches, will be a big factor. And there’s that great, terrible unknown in sports that no one ever wants to talk about: the dreaded injury bug. But unless some characterless player decides to take him out, McInerney’s youth and tendency to play away from the ball probably work to his advantage when it comes to health.
WHAT ABOUT JUNE? A more realistic and immediately entertaining possibility might be whether McInerney can pocket an astounding third-stright Player of the Month Award. It will be a battle worth watching, although it’s probably uphill. True, McInerney got off to a good start with his clutch stoppage-time tally on Saturday in Toronto, but some his companions in the goal-scoring race also scored last weekend including Mike Magee (making his first start for Chicago after being traded from L.A.) and Sporting Kansas City’s Claudio Bieler. What’s more, U.S. Open Cup play means the Union only plays two more league matches this month while some other clubs like Di Vaio’s Impact play four. There may also be a bit of bias among some of the writers who decide the winner, since they all know who’s won the last two rounds and may want to mix things up.
THE CAMPAIGN CONTINUES: But Jack will get another chance to make his case on Wednesday night at PPL in an important shake-down against Columbus, one of the clubs on the Union’s heels. Columbus (4-4-5) tied Houston this weekend and is still just 2-points behind Philadelphia in the race for the fifth and final play-off position in the Eastern Conference. Columbus is in a good spot with two games at hand on Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the Union sits only 3-points behind both Houston and Kansas City, neither of which seems to want to take charge of their destiny. So, as always, a win would be big.
NEW CHALLENGER: You may not have noticed, but the loudest thunderclap coming-out of the MLS slate of matches last weekend involved the L.A. game—and it was not the Galaxy making the big noise. The formerly laughable New England Revolution laid an almost inconceivable 5-0 bombshell on the two-time defending MLS champs (yep, that’s the same Galaxy Club who exploded for 3 late goals to bury the Union at PPL Park a few weeks ago). The Galaxy controlled the ball well last weekend and had plenty of regulars on hand. But you have to wonder how much they missed recently traded Mike Magee who had been leading their club in goals. His replacement, Robbie Rogers, isn’t fully acclimated yet and only got into the match for 24-minutes as a late sub. Why should Union fans be interested? The Revolution has been quietly righting their ship and is now tied with Philadelphia at 5-5-4.