BEAVERTON, Ore. – Jack McInerney was right where he wanted to be, camped out on the back shoulder of San Jose Earthquakes rookie defender Kip Colvey.
With his sixth sense for finding space, McInerney drifts away from Colvey as the ball soars into the box. Suddenly, the ball is headed right into the path of the onrushing McInerney, who raises his right leg just in time to get a foot to the ball before Earthquakes goalkeeper David Bingham can grab it.
In a matter of a few seconds, the Portland Timbers cut San Jose's two goal lead to one.
It was also the kind of goal that McInerney has become known for throughout his career: sudden, opportunistic, created through intelligent movement off the ball.
Still only 23 years-old, McInerney is now playing in his seventh MLS season and in those seven years he's had experiences enough for a seasoned veteran. MLS Playoffs? Check. CONCACAF Champions League? Check. Goals? Check. To date, McInerney has 39 career goals. That makes McInerney the youngest active player with 38 or more goals in MLS.
To get to this point, McInerney has had to put in the work. He's gone through regime changes in Philadelphia and sojourns with both the Montreal Impact and Columbus Crew SC. The constant has always been goals.
“I kind of just find my way in the box and enter to a space that I need and the ball finds me,” McInerney says of his playing style.
“In the box you have to get that two inches of space. You just have to be relentless and ruthless in the box with your finishing. That's what I've done in my career and that's how I've made it this far.”
Now in Portland – a place that he says is “different from anywhere I've ever seen” – McInerney has already scored one goal for the Timbers as a substitute this season and nearly added a second – and would-be game-winner – against Real Salt Lake.
When he talks about the shot against RSL, McInerney suddenly straightens up. His face takes on a sudden seriousness and his laid-back speaking style becomes unusually animated.
“I backpedaled and peeled off from the defender and the defender was two yards in front of me,” McInerney says of the moment just before the shot. “I took a great touch and I didn't have time to look up and put the ball….”
He pauses, a career goal scorer looking for the right words to describe the complex emotions of missing a shot that he admits to re-watching 50 times already.
“I could have passed it near post,” he finally says. “It's disappointing, but it's not going to happen again.”
This quiet confidence and self-belief is what has kept him battling in training and what has made him such a valuable forward throughout his MLS career.
“I've just learned to try and stay consistent,” he explains. “You miss an opportunity, put it behind you [because] it's the next one that counts.”
But McInerney brings more than just hard work and a knack for finishing chances. He's also earned a reputation for doing the unpredictable and the seemingly counterintuitive. You can often find him peeling away from a flighted ball or moving towards the nearest defender.
“Someone's going to loft the ball in the box, everyone's going to go to that area and try to win the ball there,” McInerney says. “It's gotta bounce somewhere else and I'll take my chances on the other side and the defenders aren't going to be aware or tracking someone that's 10 yards on the other side of the box.
“Eventually the ball's going to fall in that area and you're going to be wide open.”
Creating that separation from defenders is more art than practiced skill. It's based on intuition and experience, something that McInerney has racked up a lot of in his seven year professional career.
McInerney, though, knows that despite all of his experience in front of goal, he still has a lot to learn as a player. He recognizes that today's game requires a forward to do more than just score goals; he also has to be able to hold the ball up under pressure, drop into midfield and connect with his teammates.
Even so, McInerney can score goals.
“He knows what type of player I am,” McInerney says of Timbers head coach Caleb Porter.
“When I get in, I need to score goals. There are plenty of games this year, so once I get those opportunities I've got to take advantage of them.”