Mac still not back, but showing signs

Me in Budapest

So, how do you feel about Union striker Jack McInerney’s stint with the U.S. Men’s Gold Cup team now?  When McInerney was called-up by the national squad in late June, there was a groundswell of support from proud Philadelphia fans, happy that their star forward was getting International exposure.  McInerney, the general sentiment went, would surely come back from the experience exhilarated and improved and the Union would benefit in the long-run.

So far, no good. 

McInerney, who was leading the MLS with 10 goals at the time of his departure, ended-up near the bottom on the U.S. team’s depth chart, practiced hard with great teammates, but rode the bench for all of the several games he was available to enter, including at least one laugher. He was sent back to Philadelphia before the team’s Cup run was over.

Since returning, Jack Attack’s play has been uneven.  There have been entire games where the young star’s name has barely been called and others where Jack gets the ball on his foot, but seems to have mysteriously lost the ability to quickly put it away.  The benefit to the Union from Jack’s call-up may yet materialize, but in the short run, McInerney appears both humbled and befuddled. Nine games down the road, he has been unable to net a single additional goal.  In fact, he’s been subbed-out on occasion and has not always been part of John Hackworth’s starting line-up.

So what to do?  Given that the past is the past and neither Philadelphia’s coaching staff nor their young star can reclaim the time squandered practicing with the big boys (let alone the lost confidence that one can easily imagine resulting from McInerney’s under-use in Gold Cup Land), it’s time to accentuate the positive.

First of all, it’s important to remember that for all the highlight-reel moments delivered during the season’s early months by McInerney, the youngster remains just that: a youngster.  At 21, he still has plenty of time and room to mature and improve.  It takes a long while for any athlete to learn to properly shoulder both success and adversity and Jack’s skill set suggests that the kid will eventually figure it out.

What’s more, there’s one possible reason McInerney is scoring less that has nothing to do with his personal disposition.  The team McInerney left in late June is wholely different than the one he found upon his return.  The one-man band version, with Jack doing most of the offensive finishing, has evolved into a multi-weapon approach with players like Conor Casey and Sebastien Le Toux (among many others) finding the space created by their teammate’s absence.  And in truth, this is exactly the sort of thing for which fans had been pining, especially after an early schedule pock-marked with draws that could have been wins and losses that could’ve been draws if only somebody other than Jack could consistently fire the ball.

Now, however, it’s become obvious that the team can only go so far without Jack joining in the offensive fun.  The club still does not score often enough nor take enough quality shots to keep up with the league’s better offenses.  And while moving the ball through midfield will probably remain an issue for the rest of this season (recent quality pushes by Fabinho aside), getting McInerney back into the scoring column is key if Philadelphia is serious about nailing down a play-off spot and making some post-season noise. 

In fact, it may be the only thing missing.  The defense still does well most nights.  Jeff Parke is playing his best soccer of the year right now and less-experienced players like Raymon Gaddis are steadily improving, coming-up with great one-on-one defensive plays.  Goalie Zac MacMath is also better now than a year ago, or even 5 months ago.  And when things go wrong (was that actually the Union playing during that catastrophic second half in New England?), the team bounces back with poise. Shutting-out powerful Montreal last weekend was a prime example.

The Union are having a successful season; there’s no doubt about it. They’ve developed a nice mix of young up-and-comers and seasoned veterans. On most nights, they are only a goal away from greatness.  The supporting cast has been doing a nice job up front with everyone from Danny Cruz and Antoinne Hoppenot to potential future star Aaron Wheeler chipping-in memorable, important plays.  But the club still needs Jack McInerney back on center stage to realize their full potential.  We saw positive signs against Montreal.  McInerney angled a tough rebound off the side of the net, slammed a brilliant, hard strike into the gut of the netminder and was in the right position for a header (although he whiffed).  The fact that the young star was in position to strike so often was a big step forward. 

However, this weekend, the ball needs to start going in, not only for Jack but for the others who’ve started contributing recently.  If not, fans can look forward to more games like last week (a draw that probably should’ve been a win) and a tenuous march toward a playoff berth.  On the other hand, if Jack can rejoin the Union’s balanced attack, look-out.  In that case, the Union becomes a dangerous play-off contender.

THIS WEEKEND: The opponent is the San Jose Earthquakes (Sunday 11p.m., ESPN2), a troubling draw since the California club’s 34 points puts it within reach of the final play-off berth in the Western Conference.  Three clubs are chasing fifth-place Portland with its 39 point record.  San Jose should be hungry and any team with Chris Wondolowski’s 8 goals has to be considered at least a little scary.  He’s the big fish, though.  After Wondorlowski, the EQ’s have a couple of four-goal scorers and not much else. With only 28 goals as a team this year, it’s an offense the Union should handle.  As a comparison, even with all of Philadelphia’s offensive lapses this season, the Union has managed a far more healthy 37 GF. It’s also interesting to note that McInerney, despite a 9-game goal drought, still has two more than Wonder Chris.

I’m not wild about the 11pm start time. Hopefully, Hackworth and company are encouraging players to sleep-in a bit this week to acclimate themselves to the Pacific clock.

SPEAKING OF TIME: It’s running-out.  After this weekend, the club has only 6 matches left, all of them against Eastern Conference rivals.  3 of the games are against teams ahead of them in the standings, including 2 with Sporting Kansas City, one of the clubs carrying around the most play-off buzz right now.

HUNGARY TO DOOP: The cover shot this week is me in Budapest last month where I was happy to do a little advertising for the MLS while visiting my wife’s relatives. They were very interested to know what the word “Bimbo” was all about and I had to carefully explain that it was a sponsor, a bread company based in Mexico.  Who knows what Bimbo usually means to Hungarians.  I walked around all day in the city and didn’t get too many weird looks, though, so I guess it was all good.

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