WASHINGTON -- "JACKARITO! JAVIER!" come the yells across the locker room as reporters cluster around 20-year-old Jack McInerney yet again. He smiles that goofy sheepish smile, somewhere between pride and embarrassment, and tries to continue answering questions. He's become used to the teasing, just as his teammates have become accustomed to being peppered with questions about his performances and potential.
This question-and-answer session is a bit special. The Philadelphia Union striker is coming off a two-goal performance away to D.C. United, where he was the difference as his team claimed its first-ever win at rickety old RFK Stadium, that first and last great concrete bastion of "old MLS." His strikes were his fifth and sixth of the season in his seventh appearance - enough to jump him to the top of the MLS scoring charts, at least for the time being.
Answering variations of the same questions he's asked after every game, he answers with the slightly uncomfortable rapidness of a young man thrust into a role he's not quite sure about just yet. Barely out of his teens, Jack McInerney is a bona fide star, the face of the Philadelphia Union, his determined likeness adorning posters in the team store where his jersey is one of the best movers.
"It feels good," he said after the game. He quickly sneaks in the kind of quip found only in fighter pilots and young strikers make before smothering it with the team-first company line. "I was kind of hoping I got three tonight, but if I keep scoring in every game, that means we’re probably going to be winning. The goal is to make the playoffs and if I’m the one scoring, then good for me, but the plan is to make the playoffs."
His teammates are less modest about his exploits.
"When a forward's feeling confident, it's tough to stop him," says Danny Cruz, who picked up an assist against his former club. "And right now, anything he's shooting, he's putting it in the right areas, and he's doing a great job of creating the space for himself.
"I'm enjoying playing with him, I know the rest of the team is, and hopefully he can continue to do what he does best, and that's score goals, and there's not a doubt in my mind, he will."
Conor Casey is even more straight to the point.
"He's been on fire," explained the former U.S. international matter-of-factly. "He's playing really well and taking his chances. He's a very instinctive goalscorer, creating chances out of nothing."
"When you're scoring goals, it's coming easy, and right now, it's coming very easy for him. It's great."
McInerney's boss, Union head coach John Hackworth, points out the variety of abilities the young forward has displayed. McInerney's first goal involved a neat bit of control that split open United's central defensive pairing like a rotting log before a long strike past Bill Hamid, and his second was a clinical, instinctive poacher's finish from a throw-in-to-header-to-space line of supply.
"Probably the most impressive thing is that he slowed up, cut the ball back and beat guys, and on the bench, we're saying 'why's he slowing up?' because it looked like he had a step on them. But Jack's capable of those kind of goals. I know everybody says more than anything that he's a tap-in specialist, but he has a lot of Arsenal in his bag. He can certainly hurt you from distance and hurt you in different ways, and he showed that today.
McInerney, when probed further about his personal goals, the potential All-Star nods and national team call-ups that seem to follow him like a shadow, falls back into the team-first rhetoric that most athletes use to insulate the heat of their ambitions.
"I just want to win. Scoring is winning, and those kind of things just come along with it, they aren't my choices or anything, and now the goal is just to make the playoffs with the team and that's what I'm focused on."
But he'd sure like a Golden Boot, wouldn't he? He cracks a smile. "That too."
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