As Philadelphia Union goalkeeper John McCarthy readies for Wednesday’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Semifinal against the Chicago Fire, he might look back at his first MLS season and think it hasn’t gone according to plan.
Just 23-years-old and carrying only one professional season with the USL’s Rochester Rhinos under his belt, McCarthy was originally brought in this season as cover for Algerian international Rais Mbolhi and 2014 First Round SuperDraft selection Andre Blake as the latter returned from injury. Instead, the 2014 USL PRO Rookie of the Year found himself thrust into the spotlight early in the season when, Mbolhi effectively left the team in early April after a string of subpar performances.
Though the early run of matches might not have been what he expected, McCarthy jumped at the chance to get his first run in MLS.
“Every game is an opportunity to get some experience and to play,” McCarthy told ussoccer.com. “I go into every game with the same mindset, to play my game, push my team to win. As long as I do my job and help the team out however I can that’s an achievement.”
He got a nice run of games over the next month before a freak concussion occurred during a mid-May training session. Moments before McCarthy went down, Blake, who was nearing full recovery from offseason knee surgery, planted strangely and tore his right meniscus.
The injuries forced the Union to bring in former trialist and current Carolina RailHawks goalkeeper Brian Sylvestre on an emergency loan. The effective starter through the middle of the league season, when it came time for Philadelphia to enter U.S. Open Cup play, Sylvestre was ineligible after intermittently being recalled to Carolina for their Third Round defeat to the Charlotte Independence in May.
Once clear of concussion symptoms, McCarthy moved back between the sticks for the Union’s Fourth Round tie. Having not played in a month, McCarthy had some shaky moments, but earned a clean sheet in the 0-0 draw. His best work however came in the ensuing penalty shootout as he saved three spot kicks to help the Union down his former club Rochester, 3-1 in the shootout.
McCarthy's heroics in goal through two PK shootouts in this year's Open Cup have helped him guide his boyhood club to the tournament Semifinals.
“I look back and know I made some mistakes in that game where maybe we were lucky to go to penalties,” McCarthy told ussoccer.com. “I kind of had it in my mind that if we went to penalties, I’d have an opportunity to make up for some of those. When you save a PK, it’s a great feeling, it kind of feels like you score a goal. It was a good way to win and being able to save a few PKs gave a confidence boost.”
While Sylvestre continued to start in the league, McCarthy stepped in for the Open Cup again, making six saves as the 10-man Union downed D.C. United 2-1 in the Round of 16 on June 30.
That win set up an afternoon affair with the New York Red Bulls in a July 21 Quarterfinal. Though the Union looked the better side in the first half, they went down to 10-men again when Conor Casey was sent off in the 40th minute. Despite the disadvantage, the Union looked like they’d go through when Eric Ayuk tallied halfway through the second frame, only to see Lloyd Sam finish deep in second half injury time, sending the game to extra time.
The Union survived the extra 30 minutes as McCarthy made nine saves over the two hours of play. He saved his biggest for last however as he stopped Sam’s attempt in the shootout, which eventually pushed the Union to another victory.
“We didn’t make it easy on ourselves going down to 10 men in both games,” said McCarthy. “In both games, the back line did a very good job listening to me and organizing in front of me, which made the job a lot easier for the team.”
With Sylvestre suffering a right hand laceration, McCarthy has stepped back into goal for the Union in their last two league matches, earning a clean sheet in the team’s 0-0 draw at Orlando City on Saturday.
As the team prepares for its third U.S. Open Cup Semifinal in four years, head coach Jim Curtin gives his young backstop a lot of credit for the run they’ve made in this year’s competition.
“He’s been excellent,” Curtin told ussoccer.com. “He’s a local kid, and I think like myself, he probably feels the weight of the city to try and produce a championship here. He’s run with the Open Cup, done great in the shootouts, but also in the run of play. He’s been very good on crosses and his confidence has grown in each game. Like any young goalkeeper, it’s about recognizing you belong at this level. He’s done that and shown he can thrive and he’s running with that right now.”
Wednesday’s Semifinal against the Chicago Fire will no doubt be the biggest game of McCarthy’s young career, but Curtin has confidence in his young backstop.
“It’ll be a big step for him. It’s a semifinal game, a game of consequence where if you lose you’re done. The good pros rise to that occasion and John has shown he can do that. He’s been great for us on this run.”
As he gets ready for the challenge, McCarthy and his teammates will draw on what got them through the past two matches as the club hopes for a return to a second straight U.S. Open Cup Final.
“I think our mentality in the last two games was what put us through. We were locked in and despite being down a man, no one gave a thought to losing those matches. You don’t want to forget it. It’s something to keep going.
“As we look at Chicago, we know we have an opportunity to go to another final. We know the chance is there for us to lift a trophy.”
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