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The path and the promise of Philadelphia Union star Jack McInerney | THE WORD

THE WORD is MLSsoccer.com's regular long-form series focusing on the biggest topics and most intriguing personalities in North American soccer. This week, Philadelphia Union beat writer Dave Zeitlin looks at the road to stardom for Jack McInerney, one of brightest young stars in Major League Soccer and a steady presence for the Union who leveraged his success this season into his first call-up to the US national team.


PHILADELPHIA – Jack McInerney walks up a narrow stairwell, opens a door and is immediately greeted by his two pint-sized pups, Bailey and Sadie.

Inside his spacious, new apartment – located near the northern border of the historic Old City section of Philadelphia – there are a few doggie chew toys, scattered between Ikea boxes that take up most of the hardwood floor. Just days earlier, McInerney and his girlfriend had moved from the suburbs to the city, settling on a place near where Amobi Okugo, Danny Cruz, Zac MacMath and some of McInerney’s other Philadelphia Union teammates live. If that wasn’t enough of a change for one week, the move happened just days before McInerney flew to San Diego to join the US national team in preparation for the Gold Cup.

Jack McInerney has scored 10 goals this season for the Philadelphia Union, including five game-winners. He'd never scored more than eight prior to this season.

(USA TODAY Sports)

“I’ve never lived in the city so it’s really overwhelming for me, especially because he’s getting ready to leave,” says Jack’s girlfriend Katie as she sits on their sectional couch, one of the only pieces of furniture in the living room. Bailey and Sadie have nuzzled up next to her, and some daytime television is showing on the flat-screen TV that rests, without a stand, on the floor.

“But it’s exciting. There are a lot of changes for sure … exciting changes.”

Luckily for them, change is not something that overwhelms McInerney, the 20-year-old Union striker who earlier this month was called up to the US senior national team for the first time. Unflappable and even-keeled, the high-scoring striker has handled his one-year rise from a disgruntled benchwarmer to arguably the league’s most exciting young player the same way he seems to handle everything: with a quiet, inward confidence.

This is not something that’s new to him. In the locker room after games, he answers questions from reporters honestly, bluntly and usually with as few words as possible. He’s the same way with his coaches – Union head coach John Hackworth insists, “when we have a conversation it doesn’t take too long” – and even with his family and friends.

“He always makes fun of me for talking too much,” Katie says. “He always says, ‘You don’t need to say that much to get your point across.’”

She smiles and tilts her head toward McInerney, who’s near the front door of the apartment, building a shoe rack.

“Right, Jack?” she calls out to him. “I talk too much?”

As if to prove her point, McInerney responds with just one syllable.

“Yep,” he says, his eyes firmly trained on that shoe rack he wants to make perfect.

---

Nearly three weeks later, McInerney is standing near the middle of the home locker room at PPL Park, wearing black dress pants and a sharp turquoise dress shirt. He’s just finished playing in his first game back with the Union since his USMNT stint – a scoreless draw with the Portland Timbers this past Saturday – and is surrounded by reporters.

But while the questions before his departure were focused around his growing stardom and his looming US national team call-up, the ones now seem significantly gloomier. He was asked about failing to make his first appearance with the US national team … and about getting dropped from the Gold Cup before the knockout stage (which allowed him to rejoin the Union this past Friday) … and about going scoreless in his fourth straight MLS game ... and about not getting selected to the MLS All-Star Game despite being named the league’s player of the month for the first two months of the season.

And yet, he answered all of the questions with the exact same demeanor as he did before he left Philly three weeks earlier, when he was seemingly on top of the world.

“I don’t think he wants people to see his highs and lows,” says his mother, Wendy.

And after all, his lows these days aren’t very low at all, at least compared to early last season when he didn’t even make the Union’s 18-man gameday roster for a string of games. That becomes apparent when he casually mentions that arguably the best player in US soccer history was the one that tutored him the most over the past three weeks.

Landon [Donovan] was pretty good with me,” McInerney says. “He took me under his wing and talked to me and let me know what I needed to do and how I was doing.”

In many ways, McInerney’s inclusion on the US national team, alongside the likes of a three-time World Cup veteran like Donovan, is an accomplishment on its own. Consider that since 2000, only seven players were called up by the US to play in the Gold Cup when they were younger than McInerney is now, and the list includes the likes of Donovan (2002), DaMarcus Beasley (2002), Michael Bradley (2007) and Juan Agudelo (2011).

Perhaps that’s one reason US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann always seemed more interested in getting McInerney accustomed to his training sessions rather than getting him live minutes. After the Americans’ opening win over Belize on July 9, Klinsmann noted: “For a player like Jack right now, it’s a tremendous learning curve. You train every day with these guys and see, ‘OK, this is my club level and this is the national team.'"

Before leaving Philly, McInerney wasn’t sure if he’d get the opportunity to play. He also didn’t personally know anyone on the US team besides Houston Dynamo forward Will Bruin and, aside from one phone call Klinsmann, didn’t have any contact with the coaches. Even that phone call with the US boss turned out to be very brief.

“I didn’t say much of anything,” McInerney says. “I just went along with it.”

Philadelphia Union defender Amobi Okugo (center) says McInerney "doesn’t try to do extra. He knows he’s a finisher. He’s just going to put the ball in the back of the net."

(USA TODAY Sports)

Like always, the US national team newcomer simply planned to let his game do his talking – a game that, in many ways, mirrors his personality: simple, straight to the point and not at all flashy.

“He likes to pick and choose his words and is not the type of guy that talks the talk,” says Okugo, his best friend on the team and roommate on road trips. “It’s just like he is on the field. He analyzes everything. He doesn’t try to do extra. He knows he’s a finisher. He’s not going to beat you off the dribble or anything. He’s just going to put the ball in the back of the net. He goes about his business – just like he does in his everyday life.”

To get a sense of McInerney’s “picking and choosing his words,” all you have to do is scroll through his Twitter feed, where he hardly ever threatens the 140-character limit.

After a big win earlier this season, he posted only a photo of the Eastern Conference standings, showing the Union had moved up to second place. After doing the weather on a local news broadcast – a byproduct of his rising fame in Philly – he simply tweeted, “hardest thing ever.” And after his full name of “John Seamus McInerney” was used when the preliminary Gold Cup roster was revealed – and the Internet became abuzz with middle-name chatter – McInerney dryly tweeted, “It is pronounced Shaymus.”

“He has one of those personalities where he’s very funny,” says Cruz, another one of his best friends on the team. “But it’s such a dry sense of humor.”

For someone who’s so careful with his words, however, there are certain things he seems to enjoy discussing. He doesn’t mind talking about personal goals like winning the Golden Boot, which he made one of his offseason objectives. He’s boldly declared that he still wants to score 20 goals this season, despite missing a few games for Gold Cup duty. He’s proud of the two straight MLS Player of the Months awards he nabbed in April and May, and the fact that MLS stars Thierry Henry, Dwayne De Rosario and Donovan have all come up to him before games to tell him to keep doing what he’s doing.

He even happily answered questions about his likeness to Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernández when he was dubbed “The American Chicharito” on an MLSsoccer.com podcast earlier this season.

In general, all of the national attention he’s received in the past year has been a lot more fun than it has been overwhelming, even for someone as quiet as him.

“The only way to get hyped up is to do that stuff,” McInerney says. “I like the spotlight. If you want to be known, those kind of things come along with it.”

But does that make him cocky? Or does being open about your personal aspirations and expecting to score every game just part of the makeup of a great striker?

His teammates know the answer.

“Jack doesn’t walk around the locker room thinking he’s better than anyone else,” Cruz says. “I see every day how humble he is in the locker room. I see how hard he works in training. When I’m exhausted in the 80th minute from tracking a runner, I see him getting back and helping me out. For me, that’s not someone who’s cocky.”

“There are some guys in this league that are cocky,” Okugo adds. “Jack’s not one of them.”

---

Wendy McInerney laughs and gives a long “weeellll” when asked to describe her son’s personality. She rattles off words like “intense,” “serious,” “introverted,” “competitive,” and, of course, “quiet.” Then, she explains a little bit how Jack got that way.

“We can drive all the way to Florida in our car and the only time anyone would speak up is if they were hungry of needed to stop to use the restroom,” she says. “That’s just how we are.”

The McInerneys certainly did a lot of traveling. Because of Jack’s father’s job, the family relocated from Tennessee to Colorado to Illinois to California to Florida and finally to Georgia before the young McInerney even entered the third grade.

Soccer, however, was the one constant. And his parents had an early clue how gifted he was when, after his first practice as a 4-year-old, a coach told Wendy that he wanted to remember their last name because he’d be seeing her son on TV someday.

McInerney initially caught the attention of his coaches when he was just four years old. "“If you ask anyone I’ve ever played with, they would always say I would never even smile after I scored," he says. "I just knew I was going to do it.”

(Photo courtesy of Wendy McInerney)

McInerney always seemed to know how good he was, too. And he didn’t need any bold declarations from youth coaches to remind him of that.

“If you ask anyone I’ve ever played with, they would always say I would never even smile after I scored,” says McInerney, who’s never played any other position besides striker. “I just knew I was going to do it.”

When the McInerneys moved to the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, Wendy initially had a hard time finding a team for her 8-year-old son because everyone had already held their tryouts. Finally, she convinced a U-10 coach to let Jack come out, telling him, “Look, I think it will be worth your time if you take a look at him.” The coach consented, and that was all McInerney needed to begin to establish himself as a star in the Georgia youth circuit.

When he was 14, McInerney got a call from Hackworth, his future manager with the Philadelphia Union. Hackworth, then in charge of the US U-17 residency program, invited McInerney to Bradenton, Fla., to join an elite group of soccer-playing teenagers that included a few of his current Union teammates.

Still, McInerney and Hackworth butted heads slightly during the early going, largely because the coach valued fitness that the young player simply didn’t have. But McInerney’s work ethic earned him points even when he would struggle through five-mile runs.

“When he came into residency, he probably wasn’t number one on the depth chart,” Hackworth says. “But he didn’t say anything. He just went about being very serous and scoring goals. And he did that from the very first day he was there.”

By the time the 2009 U-17 World Cup rolled around, Hackworth had left the residency program. But McInerney continued to showcase his goal-scoring prowess, scoring against Spain and the United Arab Emirates to help the US advance out of the knockout stage of the tournament in Nigeria. Yet ever the perfectionist, McInerney still thinks about the penalty kick he missed in the Americans’ 2-1 loss to Italy in the Round of 16.

McInerney also missed a PK in the Georgia State Cup finals and one more in a shootout in the Union’s US Open Cup loss to D.C. United in 2011. For someone that can score goals so well in the run of play, he doesn’t know why he’s “missed more [penalty kicks] than I’ve made.”

But when the time comes, he still wants the ball on the spot. It’s all part of his makeup of a goal-scorer.

“If I get fouled,” he says without hesitation, “I’m definitely taking the PK.”

---

The minute McInerney left Bradenton following his graduation from the residency program, he told his parents he was never going to step foot back into a classroom. And it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Aside from the time his fourth-grade teacher created a reading competition and Jack decided he wanted to win it, he was always more interested in playing sports than he was about school. And after his breakout performance at the U-17 World Cup, he decided it made a lot more sense to enter the draft rather than go to college, where an injury could derail his professional dreams.

McInerney joined MLS before his 18th birthday when he was selected by the Union with the seventh overall pick of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, becoming a part of the franchise’s highly touted first-ever draft class. But while fellow Union originals Danny Mwanga and Okugo roomed together in the city, McInerney decided to get his own place in the suburbs, near PPL Park.

McInerney joined the US youth ranks at 14 years old, and went on to score two goals in the 2009 Under-17 World Cup. But he missed a penalty kick in the team's loss to Italy in the Round of 16, which he still laments to this day.

(Photo courtesy of Wendy McInerney)

“Jack lived on his own from the first year,” Okugo says. “He got his own car the first year and he went to practice. You wouldn’t even realize he was the youngest out of all of us.”

Being so young, McInerney had to quickly adapt to new things, like learning how to drive. But for someone who had always been mature and independent, that part proved to be easy.

The far more difficult part of his first couple of years in Philly was trying to impress then-manager Peter Nowak, who played McInerney erratically in 2010 and 2011 and then buried him on the bench for the start of the 2012 season.

In typical McInerney fashion, here’s how the striker succinctly sums up his relationship with Nowak: “It was really good at first. And then he just kind of went crazy.”

Had Nowak not been fired last June, McInerney believes he would have been traded that same week, joining Sébastien Le Toux, Danny Califf and Mwanga as Union originals exiled by Philly’s mercurial former manager that year.

Instead, his old coach Hackworth was promoted from Nowak’s top assistant to Philly’s head man and immediately plugged McInerney into the starting lineup. McInerney responded by scoring eight goals over the final four-and-a-half months of the 2012 season, including one in four straight games from Sept. 29 to Oct. 20, which was a franchise record.

And even after Hackworth brought back Le Toux and signed veteran forward Conor Casey this past offseason, McInerney maintained his starting spot up top and continued to pour in the goals. He has 10 this season heading into a matchup Saturday in Vancouver, despite going scoreless since June 1.

How often does he think about how he went from an unused sub to one of the league’s premier goal-scorers in less than a year?

“It’s definitely in the back of my head,” he says. “And it probably always will be.”

Hackworth has been impressed that McInerney has been able to not get a big head “just because people are talking about him more.” The Union manager also believes the fourth-year forward is becoming a far more complete player as he continues to gain more MLS experience.

Despite only a brief spell with the US national team during the Gold Cup, McInerney says it was enough to motivate him to return. “For me to get that little taste, iit just makes me want to work that much harder and keep scoring."

(USA TODAY Sports)

Yes, the best part of McInerney’s game is still making smart runs, finding space and finishing. But the young striker has put to bed the notion that he’s just a poacher with some of the goals he’s scored this season, including two left-footed beauties against D.C. United in April.

According to Hackworth, that’s also something Klinsmann noticed when the US boss scouted McInerney during the Union’s 3-0 win over the New York Red Bulls on June 23. McInerney didn’t score in that game, but Klinsmann nevertheless called him two days later to inform him that he made the Gold Cup squad.

“When we spoke after the Red Bull game, coach Klinsmann seemed to have a great appreciation of some of the finer things that I always think of Jack’s game,” Hackworth said. “He said the runs Jack made to open up space for his teammates, in particular Conor Casey, [led to the goals]. In addition to that, he pressed really hard, he won a couple of tackles – and so the work ethic combined with the intelligent movement off the ball were something coach Klinsmann had noted to me.”

And even though Klinsmann opted not to play McInerney in the Gold Cup, those that know McInerney best have a hard time seeing anything but big things for the soft-spoken striker – both in MLS and at the international level.

“There’s no doubt in my mind – not even a little bit,” Cruz says. “You’ll see Jack McInerney with the national team for a while.”

And when that next call from Klinsmann comes, McInerney will be ready for it. He just might not say very much.

“For me to get that little taste,” the Union striker says, “it just makes me want to work that much harder and keep scoring.

“I want to get back there.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.