Historic moment led Union's McInerney to soccer

Inquirer Staff Writer

Jack McInerney knows when to drift away from the crowd. These days, the Union forward is the last man opponents should want to lose track of.

Yet at the most interesting times, it keeps happening.

"For me, it's just, expect to get the ball where no one else [thinks of] - why would it land there?" said McInerney, a 20-year-old in his first full season as a starter, currently tied for the Major League Soccer scoring lead with 10 goals.

Over 90 minutes in a recent game at Toronto, McInerney had touched the ball maybe four or five times. He hadn't taken a shot, and had grown increasingly frustrated, he admitted later.

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  • But as a long Union throw-in headed toward Toronto's goal in stoppage time, the game's final moments, most everybody stepped toward the ball. McInerney stepped away.

    A Toronto player headed the throw-in away from the front of the goal - right to the one player Toronto didn't want to see open with the ball. McInerney buried his only shot of the afternoon, far post, tying the game, officially in the 90th minute.

    When the goal was described later that evening to Steve Gummer, one of McInerney's youth coaches, he said, "Jack has an unbelievable ability to kind of drift away and find space and let the ball find him. He had that when he was 10, 11, 12 years old."

     

    The dominoes fall

    A boy and his father sit on a couch, watching a game. The boy studies his idol.

    It's been like that for decades in the United States. The difference here is the sport. The boy's idol is a Frenchman, playing soccer in England.

    The boy is a child of his day, but that day is part of a chain of events.

    If a goal hadn't been scored against a setting sun in Trinidad on Nov. 19, 1989, qualifying the U.S. team for the 1990 World Cup; if the United States hadn't hosted the 1994 World Cup; if Major League Soccer hadn't been founded . . .

    If those dominoes hadn't fallen . . .

    Well, McInerney would have made a fine shortstop.

    "He was making beautiful one-handed grabs, on his knees, then bouncing up and making the throw," Jack's father remembers of his son the shortstop.

    When it was time to choose a sport, baseball or soccer, the kid didn't know the history. He knew the Nigerian who taught him fine points of goal-scoring in suburban Atlanta had played in the 1994 World Cup.

    It seemed perfectly normal that his youth coach scored a goal once in the World Cup.

    "I was just a kid," McInerney said of the choice he made when it was time to specialize. "I just liked being good at whatever I was good at. I think I was just better at soccer at the time."

    Youth soccer had begun taking off in the United States before 1990, of course. The dominoes really helped McInerney's father see the possibilities. Soon enough, father and son were watching those English Premier League games every Saturday morning. The United States had become connected to the world's game.

    Jack Sr. is the son of a policeman, 10 years in Chicago, 10 years in Miami. He had been a baseball and football player and played one year of youth soccer, but after that the only kicking Jack Sr. did was as a placekicker for his high school football team.

    His son was not yet 2 when the '94 World Cup was held in the United States. Major League Soccer was just up and running when the boy began to play the sport.

    "We were living in Peoria [Ill.] at the time . . . living in a small apartment. There happened to be a soccer field behind it, kind of run down, just a field with a couple of goals," Jack McInerney Sr. said. "We would go to the field, just us kicking the ball, passing back and forth, until we got to the net, then he would shoot. For hours. He'd juggle, learn to stop it on a dime. That's probably my earliest memory of how it began."

    Jack was put on a team that year, at age 4. Both of his parents remember being startled by a remark made by Jack's first coach.

    "His first practice as a 4-year-old, the coach came up to me, and said, "I'm going to remember your name because I'm going to see your son on TV someday,' " said Jack's mother, Wendy McInerney.

    She remembers another coach later on, when the family lived for a time in Orange County, Calif., sending Jack back to play goalkeeper after he scored a few goals - so the score wouldn't get embarrassing.

    The kid always had a fire. He knocked over a Hi Ho! Cherry-O board once when he lost a game to his grandfather.

    When it was time for a pivot point - soccer or baseball? - the family had moved to suburban Atlanta, to Alpharetta, Ga.

    You'd assume that in 1990s Atlanta, during the glory days of Maddox, Glavine, and Smoltz, the best education a kid could get in a sport in that city would be in baseball, that a sport such as soccer would be a distant backwater in comparison.

    And you'd be wrong.

     

    World-classic coach

    Samson Siasia's greatest memory of the 1994 World Cup?

    "There is no better memory than scoring a goal in the World Cup," Siasia explained. "The history of the World Cup won't be complete without my name in it."

    A goal against Argentina, in what turned out to be Maradona's last World Cup game.

    Siasia's eighth-minute strike put Nigeria ahead - make no mistake, Siasia's name was reverberating around the world - but Argentina came back with two of its own. Eventually, Nigeria was eliminated in the round of 16 by Italy in an epic game. The great Roberto Baggio tied the game in the 89th minute, then scored on a penalty kick in overtime.

    Siasia went on to coach Nigeria's Olympic team that won a silver medal, and then the full national team, the Super Eagles.

    First, he stopped off in Atlanta for a couple of years. He had a friend there, a Brit, who was coaching soccer. There was a little money to be made teaching American kids. Certainly more than in Nigeria.

    One of those kids Siasia remembers well.

    "I have a lot of memories about Jack," Siasia said in a phone interview from Abuja, Nigeria. "In front of goal, he shoots the ball so hard."

    "He taught Jack how to finish - that you don't have to kill the ball and put a hole in the back of net," Jack Sr. said of Siasia.

    "I didn't know better," McInerney said, in a recent interview at PPL Park. "That's what just seemed fun."

    Before and after practices, the Nigerian worked with the 10-year-old, showing him the importance of his first touch, the setup, how to always know where you are on the field, to know the angles and how much to swing your foot to find a corner of the net.

    "If your touch is good, it gives you seconds ahead of the defender," the coach explained to the boy.

     

    Emotional control

    Gummer, his next coach in Atlanta, came from England - seeing the same possibilities in coaching youth soccer as Siasia - and added other important elements to McInerney's game.

    "He was a lazy striker," his father said. "He'd wait for the ball . . . Steve stressed, what are you doing when you don't have it? When you go down a goal, what's your body language telling you? Are you picking up the pace, setting a tone? He benched Jack for a couple of games. He got the message."

     

    Taking off

    McInerney has the sport's full attention now. He recently was named to a preliminary 35-man U.S. national-team (subject to cuts) for this summer's Gold Cup. He was the MLS player of the month for April and May (then scored that 90th-minute goal on June 1).

    Not bad considering McInerney couldn't even get on the field this time last year for the Union. He usually didn't even make the travel roster. He was so frustrated that he asked to be traded, and was led to believe that was about to happen. A deal was in place with the Los Angeles Galaxy, McInerney said, until the Union made an entirely different move, firing coach Peter Nowak.

    Since then, McInerney has taken off, getting on the field immediately under coach John Hackworth. His fellow pros can see how it's happening.

    "What's special about this goal - one, how well he opens his body, in order to face goal after the first touch," said veteran teammate Chris Albright, watching a replay of a goal McInerney scored earlier this season against Chicago. "Two, if you watch how quick he gets his feet set to strike it right away before it even bounces. He does it all in one motion. He takes a stutter-step here that's really impressive. Boom, boom. One, two. To really just be able to get power on the ball, two little short steps to get his feet set."

    It is rare that McInerney isn't ready to score a goal. An underrated skill.

    "Good goal-scorers can score a number of ways," Albright said. "Jack hits a really heavy ball. He probably hits the heaviest ball on our team. When he catches it, there's movement. It's got a lot on it."

    Is that God-given?

    "It's technique," Albright said. "It really is. Yeah, he's got that sort of quick-twitch snap from his knee to his ankle. It's a violent motion when he strikes a ball. It really is. It's a violent snap of his leg. Some of that is God-given. A lot of it is him being technically sound. If you don't have the technique, you can swing as hard as you want."

    When McInerney plays now, there's an emotional sturdiness along with the fire. Some of it is surely built-in. (His father, now a warehouse operations manager, did a stint as an Army Ranger.) Maybe some of it comes from an understanding that anything good doesn't have to stay good.

    It's an eye-of-the-beholder kind of sport, and the most important eyes select the teams. Nowak didn't teach McInerney his first lesson in patience. An early one came when an regional Olympic development under-13 team was being selected. The tryout was in Mississippi. When the 25-man team was selected at the end of the tryouts, McInerney was told he was No. 26.

    "It was a 5-hour drive home with my dad," McInerney said. "I didn't say a word the whole time. I probably cried the whole time. It was definitely something I wanted. I remember my dad told me, 'Just use it to motivate you.' "

    Within two years, McInerney was out of his house for good, moving at age 14 to Bradenton, Fla., after being selected for the under-15 national residency program. He went on to be the leading scorer at the 2009 CONCACAF U-17 championship, helping his country qualify for the U-17 World Cup, where McInerney scored two goals. The following year, he was selected seventh overall by the Union in the 2010 draft.

    McInerney's ultimate goals in the sport are the typical ones, to see if he can eventually play for one of the big clubs in the world, and play for his country in the World Cup.

    "Obviously, everyone wants to play for Arsenal, Barcelona, teams like that," McInerney said.

    He doesn't mind the attention that comes with being the league's leading goal-scorer.

    "I think I perform my best when my name's out there," McInerney said.

    He was home in Georgia last weekend watching a soccer show on television when one of the analysts mentioned that his picks to start up-front in the MLS All-Star Game are McInerney and New York's Thierry Henry, who will be at PPL Park Sunday when the Union host the New York Red Bulls.

    Henry happened to be McInerney's favorite player when he used to watch those English Premier League games, when the Frenchman, a goal-scoring artist, starred for Arsenal.

    His father asked if he'd ever imagined, sitting there on that same couch as a 10-year-old, that he and Henry might one day play together.

    "He just kind of smirked," Jack Sr. said.

     


    Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow @jensenoffcampus on Twitter.

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