McInerney Trade: The Right Move?

Murphy at PPL

Who saw this coming? Young star forward Jack McInerney was traded away to the Montreal Impact Friday morning where he will team up with veteran striker Marco Di Vaio to form what could become one of the best one-two punches in the MLS. In return, Philadelphia gets 23-year-old forward Andrew Wenger, a player whose main claims to fame are in his past: he’s a former top pick in the MLS Super Draft and a former member of the Union’s affiliate, Reading United, who grew-up in nearby Lancaster County. The deal occurs in the early days of a 1-1-2 Union season which has featured fewer wins and far less scoring than anyone expected, given the club’s stunning series of off-season upgrades. Apparently, Union management had seen enough and wanted to shake things up quickly, before it’s too late.

FYI: Wenger, like McInerney, has one goal this season, even though he’s only started 3 games to Jack’s 5. It was a quality header in the rain in Dallas. The goal occurs shortly after 5:00 on this clip.

Wenger is a nice player who brings a well-known work ethic and positive attitude to Philadelphia. He’s scored six MLS goals in a couple of seasons up north and probably learned a few things playing beside DiVaio last year when the Italian forward was among the MLS scoring leaders. But you have to think this deal was more about McInerney and the Union’s struggles up front this season than Philadelphia’s burning desire for a kid who’s scored roughly half as often as the player they’re sending away.

The Downside

The Union is taking a chance with this deal on two fronts. First, the trade risks alienating the legions of McInerney fans who plunked down big money on “Number Nine” jerseys over the last couple of seasons and have been figuring that it’s only a matter of time before the young striker finds the form he enjoyed early last year. Ironically, McInerney was battling Di Vaio for the MLS scoring lead last summer before fading in the season’s second half. The risk increases exponentially every time Jack’s name shows up on the scoring sheet for Montreal in the coming weeks, and common sense says it probably will. Secondly, if the offense doesn’t improve at PPL Park in the wake of the trade, fans will rightly wonder what could have been had McInerney stayed.

The Upside

While it may be hard for fans to see it initially, there is, in fact, a good measure of method to what may seem like madness here. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine the Union—who’ve invested mightily this season, in both dollars and emotion—pulling the trigger on a deal like this simply for the sake of change. There’s very likely a bigger picture in view and while the Union front office probably won’t speak to the details, it’s easy to guess what’s on their minds. For one thing, Leo Fernandez. The young forward is filled with energy and has had a positive impact in at least two of his three appearances this year. McInerney’s departure makes more room for Fernendez, assuming Wenger doesn’t explode into an offensive superstar here. The club may also feel that Conor Casey is now healthy enough to reassume his role as reliable finisher. Recall that Casey really didn’t find his stride last season until McInerney left the club during the summer for a stint with the US Men’s National Team. Players like imports Christian Maidana and Vincent Noguiero, who scored his first goal last week, may also find more space.

One also has to wonder a little about McInerney. The new guy, Wenger, is by every account a stand-up personality with an exceedingly good attitude. Translation: he’s coachable. McInerney? For what it’s worth, his USMNT stint ended after three weeks of practice and not so much as a minute’s playing time. When he came back to the Union, he seemed disoriented and ended-up on Manager John Hackworth’s bench for a few games as well. At the time, I wrote that young players often have growing pains and that McInerney was likely the type who could work himself back into shape. Almost a year later, we were still waiting for him to find his mojo. McInerney was playing off the ball more than on and was whiffing on most of his chances. His single goal this season doesn’t happen if big Maurice Edu isn’t a few feet behind him in the box directing a cross in his direction.

Not-So-Fast Forward

The other issue is that the Union is not scoring nearly often enough this season and the problem area is obvious. It certainly isn’t the midfield where the three newcomers (Maidana, Noguiera and Edu), along with Union survivor Brian Carroll, have controlled the majority of play in every match and completely dominated more than once. You can’t fault the defense, either. Again this season, the back line has been solid and has tended to prevent long forays by the opposition in front of its goal while sending good feeds the other way.

The issue has been almost entirely up front where opportunities are created but rarely buried. If there was going to be a change, it had to be on that end of the field, whether or not this was the specific change you wanted to see. But if not Jack, then who? Conor Casey, just back from an injury? Sebastien Le Toux? Again? Maybe McInerney was the player the Union wanted to deal. Or maybe he was the only one they could deal, while still getting some quality in return. Either way, it was the right sort of trade.

Union supporter Alex Hamell also suggest to me that salary cap issues may have played a role in the deal, as McInerney’s full pay would have counted against the cap next year (due to his growing service time in the league), making him hard to retain.

And For Their Next Trick…

The front office moved fast on this, which is either a sign of a club that’s serious about winning and isn’t afraid to act boldly to make it happen, or a management group with a nervous sweat beading on the neck that’s beginning to feel the early pangs of desperation. I’m willing to give the Union the benefit of the doubt for a few weeks on this point. A bevy of additional moves in the coming weeks will make me uneasy, the way Bobby Clarke used to worry me with his trade-a-third-of-the-club approach every year he was the Flyers’ G.M.. On the other hand, if the Union stands pat and gives players like Wenger, or Casey or Fernandez a chance to get hot, by mid-May, we all could be as happy as the Sons of Ben at a Doop Party.

Honestly, the moment I heard about this trade, I had the completely opposite reaction that the newsroom folks who alerted me anticipated. I liked it. Change was made in the area where it was needed. The Union got decent value in return and may have shaken things up just enough to get the offense moving. It’s a dice roll, no doubt. Every move in professional sports is nothing more, nothing less. Ruben Amaro can tell you plenty about that. But the Union is probably better off with a management team that isn’t afraid of change than one stuck with a concrete plan.

As for Jack McInerney, he will likely be remembered with exceeding fondness by many among the Union faithful—and that’s probably as it should be. We witnessed plenty of growing pains in his short time as a Philadelphia starter, but for three magical months last year, Jack almost single-handedly put the Union on the map and into the play-off picture. His run of success is reminiscent of Raul Ibanez’s first year with the ’09 Phillies when the outfielder carried the team on his back until the rest of the Fightins got it together. Jack was that guy for the Union last year. And he may be again someday. Just not here. At 21, he’s got plenty of time to find that lost magic. So merci, Jack, and au revoir!

Well, until August 9th, that is. Then, it’s bonjour. That’s when Montreal returns to PPL Park.

Here’s my preview of Saturday night’s match in Chicago:


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