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.”
On Feb. 9, 2013, the U.S. Women’s National Team kicked off the new year with a 4-1 victory against Scotland in Jacksonville, Florida. Christen Press, then 24-years-old, was responsible for two goals that day, scoring in the 13th minute and adding another in the 32nd to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead at halftime.
The early goal was Press’ first for the USA, coming in a match that was also her first cap.
Becky Sauerbrunn hugs Christen Press in the aftermath of Press scoring on her WNT debut.
Earning that first cap is special for any player, but a debut and a goal in the same game? That’s a rare feat. In the 30+ year history of the U.S. WNT 21 players have scored in their first caps.
NOTHING TO LOSE
Press’ path to that first game three years ago was an interesting one. In early 2012, she made the decision to move to Sweden after U.S.-based Women’s Professional Soccer folded. Press thought leaving the country might negatively impact her hopeful National Team career, but little did she know, it was only just beginning.
“I think just because I always thought that the National Teams would be watching the American league, I thought that going abroad was kind of like saying goodbye to my dream of playing for the National Team,” recalled Press. “I left around this time, in February, and I thought I would not get a call, I sort of thought that I would fall out of U.S. Soccer’s radar.”
As it turns out, head coach Pia Sundhage kept tabs on players in Europe, especially in her native land of Sweden. Press got off to a hot start with her new club, and it wasn’t long before she was on her way back home.
Press returned to the U.S. and joined the WNT in Florida in April during the final stretch of what had been an intense fitness camp. She kept to herself and tried to quickly learn as much as possible despite only being there for five days.
“I had nothing to lose,” she said. “It was my first camp, it was warm and I was so happy. I don’t think I spoke to anybody. I was not nervous, I was just happy to be in Florida and my dream was coming true. I’m always quiet when I don’t know my surroundings, so I just kept to myself trying to learn the rules, how to behave; it was all so quick.”
That short stint turned out to be the only one for Press before she was named an Olympic alternate in 2012. The following February, Tom Sermanni took over as WNT head coach, and it was then Press learned she would start against Scotland. Her chance had arrived.
“I went on the field, the crowd was so much bigger than I’d ever played in front of, and for me it was so much bigger than life,” said Press. “But I kept telling myself, ‘I’m not nervous, I’m confident, I’m a good player and I believe in myself.’”
Years and multiple goals later, plus one Women’s World Cup title to her name, the dream is alive and well for Press.
Press celebrates scoring her first World Cup goal against Australia in the USA's opening match of the 2015 Women's World Cup