A View from Afar / Commentary

John McCarthy and other signs for optimism

Photo: Earl Gardner

Confession: Saturday was the first time in weeks that I really, truly wanted to watch a Philadelphia Union game.

Yes, one month into the season, and I was disinterested. That stemmed partially from the chaos of everyday life, family visiting from Brazil, and travel that took me on the road for two trips. (I actually watched Saturday’s game while in Lisbon, Portugal.) But it was also due to the poor quality of play on the field and maybe the lingering recognition and distaste at the fact that, if the Union had prioritized retaining Amobi Okugo over unnecessarily signing Rais Mbolhi, we’d be watching a much more likable, effective and entertaining (for the right reasons) club.

But Saturday was different. The blasé had disappeared. I was looking forward to the game for a simple reason: I wanted to watch John McCarthy play.

The kid from Mayfair, North Catholic High School, La Salle University. A player you likely never heard of unless you closely followed Philadelphia scholastic soccer or PDL sides Reading United and Ocean City Nor’easters.

This is the guy who got the start for Philadelphia Union, ahead of the overpaid World Cup stalwart, last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick, and the former starter?

Yeah. He did. And he earned it.

And his team won a game. Finally. Their first win this season. In ridiculously memorable fashion.

Then McCarthy gives the television interview that makes you immediately decide, “This is awesome. I think this guy lived next door to me.” You hear him practically flip out on camera when he realizes Union color commentator and former Philadelphia KiXX goalkeeper Peter Pappas has just asked him a question via headset, at which point McCarthy confesses that he idolized Pappas as a kid. He’s just gushing, the words falling out of his mouth almost faster than he can think of them.

This is how you write the story if you’re making it up.

But you’re not making it up. It actually happened.

So you forget about the off-field drama that still dogs this club and enjoy, just for a little bit, the elation that comes with sports turning out exactly the way you hoped they could.

Five good signs for the Union

McCarthy wasn’t the only good sign for the Union, but he was definitely one of them. Yes, his distribution was poor, but that may have been a function of nerves, whether he admits it or not. And no, he wasn’t challenged often. But overall, McCarthy did an adequate job on his line and even better coming off it, the latter of which posed all too much difficulty to the benched Rais Mbolhi. If McCarthy can settle down with his distribution, we could see a pretty solid goalkeeper at the back for the Union.

Here are five other signs that should instill some optimism that the Union’s fortunes could be on the way up.

  1. Eric Ayuk is nasty. Saturday would have been a great game to put a live mic on Ayuk or, better still, NYC left back Jeb Brovsky. We could have heard the actual sound of Brovsky’s ankles breaking every time Ayuk blew past him. This won’t last forever: Teams will watch film of Ayuk, figure out how to defend him, and force him to adjust, much as they’ve done with Andrew Wenger. But it was definitely fun to watch, and those back flips were epic and should be the standard celebration for every assist Ayuk records. (On goals, a trampoline should be rolled out onto the field.)
  2. Chaco Maidana is back. The game’s flow changed completely once Maidana entered the game in the 84th minute. Suddenly, the Union had a creator finding the ball in spots that actually put the Union in position to attack. Maidana may be the team’s most valuable player. Without him, their attack is almost nonexistent, but with him and Vincent Nogueira paired up, the Union can put a team on their heels.
  3. Zach Pfeffer takes a key step. Pfeffer was set to go the full 90 until cramping up late, and he played a fairly solid game. When he touched the ball, he showed himself to be tidy in possession and made sharp passes (with one or two notable exceptions). It was a big step for a player who had not made it past halftime in most of his professional starts. What he didn’t do was find open space the way Maidana does, leading to him disappearing for extended stretches of the match. Maybe that skill will come in time. For the moment, he looks like a reliable rotation player in center midfield, and that is a big step for the 20-year-old homegrown player.
  4. Jim Curtin made a smart call with little warning that changed the game. When Pfeffer cramped up, Curtin wasted little time in changing his planned move to replace Vincent Nogueira with Maidana. Pfeffer came out instead. Often, you’ll see managers make that same move, but they’ll delay the substitution longer to see how the potentially injured player recovers. (Curtin may have done that when Sebastien Le Toux left with a nasty injury earlier in the game.) But in the 84th minute of a game, you don’t have that luxury of time. So Curtin made the switch, and Nogueira showed it was the right one.
  5. The Union have good depth at center forward. It probably didn’t thrill you to see Le Toux starting as a lone forward, as he works best as a right-sided forward or second striker. But with C.J. Sapong and Conor Casey each showing well in limited time at the No. 9 spot Saturday, the Union have demonstrated some depth there now that both are returning to fitness. With Casey, you know what you’re getting: A smart, tough player with a nose for the goal who will make a difference when fit and rested. Meanwhile, Sapong looked very good in the brief time he spent at center forward before Casey entered the game and bumped him to the wing. His problem as a winger remains that he is a center forward, and he ends up crowding the space occupied by whatever other target forward is in the game. But deployed in the No. 9 role, he looked like a handful. If Fernando Aristeguieta isn’t fully fit this week, Sapong and Casey should leave the Union in good hands.


  1. The rhythm and bounce to your writing is back this week- whether that is related to settling down after business and travel or the good tidings of a hard earned and quite overdue 3 points.
    Lisbon is nice. I visited there in my dreams once. Once.

    Johnny Dangerously.

  2. While I can agree with most said here. Can Curtin stop putting Sapong on the wing late in games. The guy does not track back or play defense not a good option when trying to hold a 1 – 1 game or trying to hold the 2 – 1 lead. I know there are limited options, but his defense is suspect at best. They either need to clearly tell him to get back or he needs to read situations better. He is a fine number 9 but keep him off the wing unless we are losing, please. Glad they got the win though. Need to build on it.

    • There’s a roster construction issue here. The only true winger we seem to have in the 18 is Ayuk. Then 2 forwards and a Wenger masquerading as wingers. Yet somehow, Cruz was deemed expendable and McGlaughlin hasn’t made the 18 yet.

      • While I agree there is a roster construction problem Cruz was expendable. Mostly due to his terrible touch. Yes, he tried hard, but the team needed more skill at that position. Ultimately with everyone healthy I’d have no problem with having Ayuk on the right and Pfeffer on the left with Maidana in the middle. You don’t need a speed winger on the left when you have Gaddis overlapping. This would then allow Wenger or Le Toux off the bench in this type of situation. Leaving Nogs and Lahoud holding. Personally it gives you a more creative team to start and a better defensive option off the bench. Cause Seba will run and play as hard as he can until his legs fall off. But Sapong doesn’t play any defense is my point. So, he is not a player to bring on in that situation. It has happened again and again and its just a really bad option immediately hurting the teams defensive shape at the end of games. Happened both in the KC and NYFC game Ayuk does not equal Sapong on the wing especially in the defensive sense. It causes Williams to push up Edu to shift right and Vittoria lost in the middle covering to much ground which he is to slow to do.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Is Pfeffer better than Wenger, on the left? He seems to thrive centrally, which leaves him on the bench.

      • I do think right now Pfeffer gives the union more then Wenger. Wenger is one dimensional and is currently not clicking with anyone on the team. Until he gets back in form I put him on the bench. Even if Pfeffer is better centerally you could have him and Maidana interchange as they wish making them difficult to track,

      • The Black Hand says:

        Pfeffer is pretty invisible, out wide. Chaco has no motor, for the wing. I think that Curtin has to work on getting the ball to Wenger…with space to operate. He’s see’s too many Hail Mary, long balls. If he sees one near the turf, it is smoked to the corner, forcing him the burnout, on the run, and have little angle to goal. When he has had a properly served ball, he hasn’t been foolish with it. His form is poor, right now, but Wenger is a decent player. Given that we have no true option on the left, I’d let a Wenger play his way out of this rut. Chaco’s service should help…

      • Stoppage_only_entry says:

        “You don’t need a speed winger on the left when you have Gaddis overlapping.”

        That’s the problem, Gaddis doesn’t overlap on the left.


        Three years and as many coaches, still no one in charge who demonstrably values the LB position, or even acknowledges that it is a position.

      • OK, I agree Gaddis doesn’t do much overlapping if at all. But Wenger does put his head down and run down the line. Now Gaddis has no left foot and may never overlap until he learns to use it, but it would at least fit in theory if he could be taught. I mean the Union haven’t had a good LB since they let Jordan Harvey go which was a mistake to begin with.

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    It’s amazing how a win can change the scope of things. Not saying we are set to win the Cup or anything, but suddenly there is depth at some spots, optimism surrounding the team, and people are getting healthy. A good showing in our next two games, and by good I mean points… will go a long way.

  4. Here are the reasons for our surprising optimism:

    1) We’ve mostly stopped our string of ridiculously bad fortune. 2 horribly officiated games, followed by 2 freak yellow cards… Not that the Union have been any kind of good team to start this year, but they ain’t THAT bad.

    2) Michael Lahoud is playing way better than we had reason to hope for. He keeps it simple, mainly restricts himself to defensive duties, and has been surprisingly effective paired with Nogueira or Carroll. This has been critical, as Ethan White hasn’t cut it, requiring Edu’s presence in the back.

    3) Eric Ayuk has been a mighty pleasant surprise so far.

    4) As Dan says, we really do have good depth at center forward.

    It’s possible that it could get better — if Andre Blake begins to live up to his billing, it’s possible we could get some great performances in goal to steal some points. Also, at some point Andrew Wenger will probably wake up and figure out what he was doing right last year. That would give us a seriously potent offense (and we’re already 2nd in the East in goals scored) to go along with a tidy midfield and a stout back line. I said last week that I had a hunch the M’Bolhi benching might signify the start of a sharp upturn for this team…

    • Agreed. If either one of those poorly officiated games is flipped to a win, we may never have been introduced to the Cliff of Union Despair. We’d be sitting somewhere near the middle of the power rankings, and we may be feeling relatively good over all. Thankfully, it’s a long season and there a few key things captured above to be optimistic about.

  5. I agree with your center forward point, however Le Toux is the one who will play there first and formost, which is the issue. I like Le Toux but he isn’t as effective anymore, Sapong changed the game when he entered.

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