I think most of us are familiar with the opening of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times") but reading a few more words in to that sentence gives us perhaps a more fitting quote when considering the best and worst of Jack Mac in 2013; "...it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair..." The best and worst moments for Jack are one and the same - that is his call up to the USMNT.
There is no doubt that Jack's form merited a call up as he was clearly one of the best American strikers at the time of the Gold Cup squad being named. Many Union fans were rightly proud that one of our own was going to represent the USA on the international stage as Jack is truly one of ours. One of the remaining originals from draft day, we have literally watched him grow up in front of our eyes. The season of light that he was having was remarkable to some, as he seemingly came out of nowhere and was suddenly scoring when he wanted. To those of us who had seen flashes of his talents it was no surprise that given decent service and an extended run with a complimentary partner (thank you, Connor) he would be successful. The movement and pace was always there and we knew he could finish with both feet and even his head, but it seemed that the one thing he missed was consistency. Finally under Hackworth Jack was given a fixed role, a supporting partner, and perhaps most importantly of all a manager that had faith in his abilities. Jack's confidence grew and besides the position of goalkeeper what goes on between the ears of a striker is just as important as what happens between the white lines.
Finally The Union had a danger man. At long last we had a player that the opposition had to game plan for. When Jack made a run, I too was looking for the ball that we had anticipated because they were finally getting played to him. When he wasn't scoring he was dropping off and creating time and space for Big 6 to occupy. The first half of the season was indeed the best of times for both Jack and The Union's long-suffering fans. We essentially had our very first DP and he was homegrown. What could possibly go wrong?
Consistency is key.
There is a lot of hyperbole thrown around sports writing regarding momentum. Old journalism's windbag extraordinaire Frank Deford rails against any journo who refers to a team or a player gaining or losing momentum as he simply denies that it exists - rather like the Vatican pillorying poor old Galileo for all those years. They better send out the Spanish Inquisition for me because I am a fanatic, a heretic, or perhaps even an evangelical missionary on a crusade to inform all who will listen that momentum (particularly for a striker) is key. When a goal-scorer gets on a roll they can be harder to stop than Connor Casey on his way to the buffet table. Everything they try just seems to come off, every shot on goal is laser guided with seeing eye accuracy, every run is timed to perfection to spring an offside trap with ease. The rest of the team recognizes this fact and they go with the hot hand (okay, not in our game but you know what I mean). We were all fearful that an injury would bring the Mac truck to a screeching halt but instead it was simply getting his dues that got him doomed.
I was always one of the quiet minority who selfishly did not want Jack to get his call up to the national team right from the very beginning. Other than a little prestige (yes it is the USA team but really it was a second string / peripheral team at best) what could jack gain from being there? Some folk argued that exposure to top class players like Landycakes and advanced coaching methods at the top of the pyramid could only do him good and teach him some new skills. "The experience will do him good" was the rallying cry. My opinion was and still is that the experience could only harm his development personally and threaten the Union's collective progress. Take Jack out of the Union attack and we are reduced to the pedestrian once more. Sure Casey is a threat and a beast and a tough physical presence that no center back would relish marking for 90 minutes but it is a whole lot easier when the other true threat to your goal is... erm... who would that be, exactly? Danny Cruz? Nope. Hoppenot? Not likely. LeToux? None of them have any well organized defense worried in the slightest.
Without Jack our offense is weaker than the watered-down fountain sodas at PPL park. By removing him from the starting lineup of HIS team, and we absolutely were HIS team as all the marketing hype will attest to (hello vaguely disturbing enormous JackMack 'o face' posters) we removed him from his comfort zone. We removed him from his rhythm and timing and connections that he had developed with his teammates. The national team call up only served to increase the awareness and hype surrounding this young man (and remember he is really just a kid) and there can be no doubt that he will have placed pressure on himself to continue to be 'the man' for the U. How many minutes of playing time did Jack get on his call up? Not playing competitive games for any period of time throws a player off his game and no position is so reliant on sharpness than striker. It is all about snapping at opportunities and split-second decisions forged on instinct.
By the time Jack had shaken off the rust from his lack of minutes the whole league was well aware of him and had watched plenty of game tape of the U. The only way we were scoring goals was through the predatory instincts of Jack and Casey. How many times did you see the U truly break down an opposing team in a sweeping move? How many times did smart interplay unlock a back four? Almost never. We scored goals by hitting teams at pace and relying on quick strikes from players in the right place at the right time. With Jack off his game and feeling pressure from fans, media, and his own self it was inevitable that he would go in to a scoring decline. The question is would that all have been the same or different if he had been around the U all season? We will never know because instead he was called on a ridiculous fool's errand for a coach in Klinsy who in my opinion doesn't really know what he is doing. As evidenced by picking Jack for a squad in a minor tournament and not even playing him. Why do that? What possible good can that do the player or the (USA) team?
In a season of two halves Jack was clearly knocked off his game by the call up and who knows what long term damage has been done to his still young and fragile psyche. I contend that he would have been much better served developing his game and his confidence by playing week in and week out with a familiar system and teammates. That is why I say that his worst moment was being called up. The opposing view is what an extremely proud and wonderful moment in the sun that must have been for him. Don't forget that under Kaiser Nowak our golden boy was deemed not even worthy of a place on the bench many times. To have risen from such despair to the height of the game must surely have been Jack's greatest moment of 2013.
So you decide dear reader. Tell us whether you think his call up was good or bad for Jack and The Union.