John McCarthy, Phila Union
Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Philadelphia Union local boy John McCarthy makes "indescribable" journey from fan to starting GK

CHESTER, Pa. – Before the Philadelphia Union played their inaugural game, the then-expansion club held open tryouts for anyone that thought they had what it took to play in Major League Soccer.

The only requirement was that you had to be at least 18 – but that wasn’t going to stop a 17-year-old high school senior named John McCarthy from showing up.

“What were they going to say? You can’t make the team?” McCarthy said. “I was going to college anyway, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I just wanted to experience it.”

Five-and-a-half years later, McCarthy will get to “experience it” even more. The born-and-bred Philadelphian has gotten the nod to man the net for Philly’s game against New York City FC on Saturday at PPL Park (4 pm ET, MLS LIVE), capping a remarkable journey from Union fan to Union starter.

“It’s just all coming together, it really is,” McCarthy said. “Being able to take it step by step, from PDL to college and college to USL and now to MLS, it’s indescribable.

“It’s always been my dream.”

It would have been hard for anyone to predict this last summer when the Union signed Algerian international Raïs Mbolhi to join youngsters Zac MacMath and Andre Blake, leading CEO Nick Sakiewicz to declare that Philly had “three of the best goalkeepers in Major League Soccer.”

But MacMath was loaned to the Colorado Rapids in January, Mbolhi was benched this week for a string of poor performances, and Blake is not fully fit after undergoing knee surgery in February.

That leaves McCarthy, who was signed as the club’s third-stringer this preseason after earning USL PRO Goalkeeper of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors in his rookie season with the Rochester Rhinos following a standout collegiate career at nearby La Salle University.

“He’s a tough kid,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “He’s a kid that I’ve watched play for a long time and a guy that I rated pretty highly. I monitored him last year when he went on trial in Seattle, monitored him last year with USL PRO in Rochester. He’s a guy I believe in and a guy that I believe can do the job.”

Blake, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, still may be the Union’s goalkeeper of the future. But McCarthy has a big opportunity in front of him to try to lift his hometown club to their first win after a dreadful 0-3-2 start and finally give Union fans something to cheer about it.

The Philly kid certainly knows what those fans are going through right now. After all, he used to be one.

“Being able to clap to the fans and see them clap back and know they have your back at all times, it shows great support,” he said. “That’s who we play for – we play for the fans and the supporters every single day. It’s just a great feeling to know they have our backs.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for Email him at