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Raves: Jack McInerney and Conor Casey

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Call it beginner’s luck. Call it knowing your players. Call it the only real option available.

Whatever you call it, John Hackworth’s decision to move Amobi Okugo and Jack McInerney into the starting lineup was and remains his best decision as a head coach. Okugo has been solid, but it is McInerney who has added an explosive dimension to the offense that was wholly absent in 2011 and the first half of 2012.

But a player that young, drawing that much attention, and with so few full games under his belt, was bound to tire out. Another option was needed if the team wanted to keep defenses off balance. And so, John Hackworth’s second best decision as a head coach: Conor Casey.

Scoring despite it all

The Conor Casey-Jack McInerney partnership has accounted for 21 of the Union’s 41 goals this season. Last year, the top three goalscorers on the team totaled 19 goals.

But sharpening the point at the top of the Union’s spear hardly tells the full story of this pairing.

In 2012, Michael Farfan led the Union with five assists from a central role.

A year later, the Union’s central midfielders have accounted for a grand total of three assists: One from Brian Carroll and two from Kleberson, aka Lazarus. Farfan and Keon Daniel have one apiece, both when they were playing wide. McInerney and Casey have not been hot at the same time, but as a unit they have provided a near-constant source of goals, effectively papering over the Philadelphia Union’s biggest flaw: The lack of a creative player in the middle of the park.

A good match, but not for the usual reasons

Perhaps the most interesting thing about McInerney and Casey is that they fit the prototypical striker partnership in theory, but they operate quite differently. Since the Union rarely play on the ground through the middle. Casey’s hold-up play has consisted more of challenging for headers so the Union can defend high up the pitch and chasing balls into the corner to hold up play while the rest of the team moves up the field. Instead of providing a solid wall around which a playmaker could play one-twos and find space, Casey has done the dirtier job of chasing and drawing contact deep.

Similarly, McInerney often leaves his high line to come back and fill gaps in the midfield. When Danny Cruz is stranded on the wing, McInerney is often the only player making a hard checking run. This duct tape work — since it covers over the team’s midfield flaws — means the strikers can’t take on the traditional big body-speedster roles, because situations in which the Union possess the ball in the final third are rare.

Instead of working together, McInerney and Casey often ended up as more of a tag team: One player hustles to pressure the ball, the other stays central and hopes for a turnover and quick counter. In lieu of being true strike partners, they matched each other’s effort level, and this allowed the Union to make the most of their many crosses and sudden counterattacks.

Of note here is that McInerney and Casey would likely be even more effective given a chance to settle into true striker roles higher up the pitch. Their contributions this season have been the product of hard work and good finishing, and they’ve done it largely by creating their own space on crosses or long balls.

System? They are the system

Think about how often Okugo or Parke has to step high to confront an opposing midfielder that has gotten deep into the Union’s half unmarked. Imagine if defenses had to deal with that coming from the Union? How much more space is there for McInerney’s runs? For Casey to pop up and lay off?

While some strikers are the product of a system — coughBrianChingcough — McInerney and Casey have been the system within the chaos for Philadelphia. When it seems like there is no plan going forward, fear not. The Union’s strikers will take your one chance and drive it home. Think about Casey’s goal in the last match against Kansas City. A deflected shot, mayhem, winner.

And when one stutters, the other guns his engine.

Cover for your friend

Before Casey was up to full speed, Jack McInerney scored 10 goals in 14 games. When McInerney went to the Gold Cup and came back cold, Casey scored eight in 17 games. And to think that neither player was in the team’s first 11 when the season started.

In four professional seasons, Philadelphia Union have put out a team that couldn’t defend (Year 1), a team that couldn’t score (Year 2), a team that couldn’t score or defend (Year 3), and a team that could put up a shutout one day and come back the next week week to give up four (and then post another shutout… then give up five).

In order for 2013’s defense — with a midfielder at center back and a right back at left back — to feel like it could make mistakes as it develops, the team needed to feel like it could score. The Union have given up some ugly late goals, but they have lived off the late strike themselves. Two strikers with something to prove have scored the game-winner in eight of the team’s 12 victories.

Proof is in the performance

For all the people who thought Jack McInerney was a flash in the pan after the first half of 2013, check out how many players scored more goals on the road this year. Check out how McInerney stacks up against Tim Cahill. Or Eddie Johnson. Or Claudio Bieler. Check out how he stacks up against any young striker in the league.

For all the folks who thought Conor Casey was going to come to Philly and do his Clint Mathis impression, take away Robbie Keane’s penalty kicks and compare seasons. Take away the four penalties Casey scored when he was in the MLS Best XI in 2009 and compare that season to his current campaign. 16 goals (4 pk), one assist, .51 open play goals per game in 2009. 10 goals, five assists, .42 open play goals per game in 2013.

Two players with something to prove. And they’ve done it.

Now the Union brain trust has to prove they can assemble a midfield capable of supplying the best striker partnership in the Eastern Conference with quality chances each and every game. This was a good year for McInerney and Casey. Next year can be much, much better.

3 Comments

  1. Jeremy Lane says:

    Amen, Adam. Amen.

  2. Southside Johnny says:

    Nice job. It’s no wonder these two had trouble dealing with their frustrations on the field despite their success. They deserve better. I feel like both played extremely unselfishly and and left it all on the field every match. Excellent analysis.

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