Ask Patrick Vieira about any of his players, and you’ll get some fairly boilerplate descriptors. He’ll likely tell you that David Villa is a “clinical finisher.” Andrea Pirlo’s passing vision and experience are “indispensable.”
But if you ask him about Thomas McNamara – New York City FC’s dynamic midfielder and burgeoning cult hero – you’ll get something a bit different.
“I love Tommy Mac.” Vieira says with a broad smile.
To a small but steadily growing number of MLS fans, “I love Tommy Mac” is something they’d happily emblazon on the front of a t-shirt. Maybe it’s the “business up front, party in the back” haircut he sported when he entered MLS several years ago. Maybe it’s the fact that, well, he doesn’t quite “look like a soccer player” – just this week, former US national team star Eric Wynalda likened his appearance to a “coed tennis player.” Or maybe it’s that the kid can just ball.
Whatever the reason, Thomas McNamara, the man who the New York Times once described as a “thick midfielder with a mullet,” has become a bit of a cult hero. To Vieira, who watches him day in and day out, McNamara’s appeal is easy to discern.
“I think Tommy is a player who, when you see him or look at him play you think ‘yeah, ok,’” Viera tells MLSsoccer.com after a preseason training session in Bradenton, Florida. “But technically, he’s fantastic. Technically he’s really good, his game understanding is fantastic. He’s really smart on the field – you tell him what he has to do, you tell him once and he understands it. And he can score goals as well.
“Those are the type of players that I like. He’s smart, always in the right position at the right time. He can score goals, he can [create]; assists, he’s comfortable with the ball at his feet. I like this player.”
Those qualities were all on display during NYCFC’s opener, a 4-3 thriller in Chicago. The former Chivas USA draft pick smashed home NYC’s opener from distance, a bending ball from 20 yards out that left Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson dead in his tracks as it pinged off the far post for the first goal of the 2016 MLS season. In the second half, McNamara’s right-footed cross from the end line was perfectly weighted, finding Mix Diskerud for an insurance tally.
Photo by Pablo Maurer
The performance was just the latest entry in the legend of Tommy Mac. It’s a long, winding story already – at 25, McNamara has been through the wringer.
In just a few years, the midfielder has been subject to nearly every MLS roster mechanism imaginable: Drafted by Chivas USA in 2014, McNamara made an early splash at the now-defunct club before a season-ending knee injury. He was drafted again by D.C. United, who picked him up in the 2014 dispersal draft. But United left him unprotected in the 2015 expansion draft, and NYCFC plucked him away before McNamara had even played a game for D.C.
And that was after something of a vagabond college career. McNamara learned his trade in the Ivy League at Brown University, where an injury forced him to sit his junior season. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The extra year of eligibility allowed him to enroll in graduate school at Clemson, where he was an All-ACC performer and NSCAA Second-Team All-American on the field and finished just three classes short of a Master’s degree before his professional ambitions called.
“It’s hard to describe, really,” McNamara says. “It’s been some ups and downs ... With the injury so early on in my career obviously it put a big damper on things. But it’s part of being a player in MLS – you never know what’s gonna happen, with Chivas folding, with DC taking me and then NYC taking me, you just have to be prepared for anything and go with it.”
His first year in blue was also a mixed bag as the Hudson Valley native struggling to crack a midfield occupied by the likes of Diskerud, Pirlo, Kwadwo Poku and Frank Lampard, McNamara was limited to 15 appearances and at times struggled to crack the 18. As the year progressed and NYCFC’s fortunes soured, a growing number of fans clamored for McNamara – and fellow fan favorite Poku – to see more action.
Photo by Pablo Maurer
In preparation for 2016, McNamara spent a week at the City Football mothership – Manchester City – ramping up his fitness and getting back into the swing of things. From the get-go, it seemed apparent that McNamara would get a clean slate with Vieira.
“I enjoy [working with Patrick] a lot,” says McNamara. “I enjoy the way that he runs training sessions. It’s very technically and tactically based, obviously with a physical component to it. I really enjoy the philosophy that he’s trying to instill in the team – always on the front foot, attack-minded, aggressive.”
Vieira, who was given a mandate to rejuvenate NYCFC and has been vocal about his desire to play an attacking, forward-thinking brand of soccer, is now in an early bind. With former English international and Designated Player Lampard due to return soon from a calf strain, what does he do with Thomas McNamara? Shifting him out wide would displace Tony Taylor or Khiry Shelton, both active and effective in Sunday’s victory as well. Diskerud looked at home in the middle after struggling in wide positions last year.
McNamara is realistic but unfazed.
“I think it’s a pretty normal human reaction – when you immediately get placed on a team with those guys and you’re playing against the Giovincos of this league, your first reaction is, ‘Wow, these are some of the best players in the world,” McNamara says. “These are guys that I grew up watching.’ But you quickly get over that.
“The guys on our team have been great. They treat us as equals – you don’t necessarily look up to them or defer to them – I think that’s the biggest thing, you have to realize that you’re on the same team and you’re equals as a result of it.”
What McNamara has that Lampard and Pirlo don’t, however, is a certain everyman appeal that’s inspired NYCFC supporters to create the self-professed “Cult of McNamara,” who will have a keen eye on Vieira’s starting XI this weekend, eager to see if their idol makes the cut.
Even Tommy Mac himself is a tad flummoxed by his following, one that’s certain to grow if he manages to hold on to his starting spot and repeat the highlight-reel exploits that wowed MLS in Week 1.
“I learned about the whole “Cult of McNamara” from my friends [before I was even on Twitter],” McNamara says, chuckling. “It’s cool – it brings a more fun aspect to soccer, especially in MLS as it starts to grow. I’m newly joined.” It’s a little overwhelming, there’s a lot going on. I’m still just kind of working through it.”