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Jul 30, 2009

McInerney shoulders the goal-scoring load for U-17s

The comments, anonymous, of course, about Jack McInerney on random soccer chat boards when he arrived in Bradenton, Fla., two years ago went something like this:

Jack McInerney? You have to be kidding.

He landed a spot with the U.S. national Under-17 residency program? The kid's parents must have known someone down there.

He won't be around for long. He can't hang with the studs down there.

Oh, really? It's a good thing none of the chat posters had the chops to put their names on those anti-McInerney entries. The guy they dissed is now one of the heroes of the U.S. U-17 team.

In April, at the CONCACAF U-17 Championship in Tijuana, Mexico, McInerney's lights-out play on offense led the Americans to convincing wins over Cuba, Canada and Honduras. With the showing, the U.S. clinched a spot in the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria this October.

However, before Nigeria, McInerney is off to Holland for a 12-day trial with a first-division team who he and his mother, Wendy, declined to name. McInerney leaves for Europe on Saturday and will return to Miami to train with the U-17s in mid-August.

"I'm real excited, a little nervous," Jack McInerney says. "It's my first trial, so this should be a good experience. My goal is to play well enough to get a [youth] contract right there. No matter what, I will learn from this experience and move on."

As for the detractors he faced early on in Bradenton, McInerney says: "I knew people were skeptical, I knew people were talking about me when I first got here. It didn't bother me too much. I train with 40 guys now and I'm sure some of them say things bad behind my back. They probably want my job."

Good luck trying to unseat him. McInerney, at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, has evolved into one of U-17 coach Wilmer Cabrera's most reliable and consistent players. According to McInerney, Cabrera pulled him aside before Tijuana, telling him he should be the team's leading scorer in the CONCACAF tournament.

He was. McInerney opened with two goals and two assists in a 5-0 win over Cuba. Then he scored the first two goals of the game in a 4-2 victory against Canada and had a goal and an assist in a 3-0 win versus Honduras.

The tournament was cut short due to the swine flu outbreak, but not before the U.S. won Group A, advancing to the semifinals.

"That's what we wanted," says McInerney, who turned 17 on Wednesday. "We wanted to come into the World Cup on fire. We didn't want to just beat teams, we wanted to destroy them."

Adds Cabrera: "The great thing about soccer is that you don't have to be the biggest, fastest or strongest player. Jack is smart and that's why he finds the goal. He knows what his strengths are, he doesn't do too much. Jack's simple and effective, he's not a showman."

No, McInerney isn't flashy, flicking the ball off his foot, dribbling too much. Blowing off the right pass for the wrong run. He's always hustling, running, moving: Cabrera says McInerney is his hardest worker in practice.

He may not have Ronaldinho-type moves, but McInerney will sacrifice his body, going in the air for a ball even when he knows he's coming down harder. McInerney's runs are concise and he makes a good target. And once he's in the box, the keeper is usually toast.

"I'll go up for a header with a guy who is 6-foot tall, it doesn't bother me," said McInerney, who arrived to Bradenton in August 2007 listed at 5-foot-6 and 145 pounds. "I play very physical. I try to play like Wayne Rooney. That's my mentality, and I love to finish."

McInerney is a humble kid, too. While scoring goals in bunches back home for Cobb SC (Georgia), he rarely celebrated. Instead, he just put his head down after ripping the back of the net and walked to midfield.

"He just wants to get the job done," McInerney's mother, Wendy, says. "When he used to score goals [for Cobb], it was like it didn't happen. I know, inside, he's proud. But he likes to keep a low profile."

McInerney cracked Cabrera's starting lineup in December '07 after scoring goals against the Richmond Strikers and Chivas USA juniors in a showcase at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. Still, he was slowed by groin and hip flexor injuries early the next year, and as a result he drew criticism on the chat boards.

Since he's been healthy, McInerney has only gotten better. He was named Parade Magazine's national boys' soccer Player of the Year last month. McInerney graduates from Bradenton in December, and Wake Forest is his top college choice, followed by Indiana.

For now, the ACC or the Big Ten is just a backup plan. McInerney is set on making the difficult straight shot overseas. He lit up Mexico with the U-17s and now he's on a challenging one-man mission to Holland.

"This is what I always wanted to do for a long time," McInerney says. "I've always thought about it. I just have to make sure it's the right situation."

Justin Rodriguez covers USL, NCAA and youth soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at rodriguezespn@yahoo.com.

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