CHESTER, Pa. — Before every Jamaica game in the Gold Cup, backup Union goalkeeper John McCarthy would send Andre Blake a text: “Good luck, my son.”
Blake — the Union’s first-string goalie who had been with Jamaica on international duty for most of July — was quick to respond, just as he was quick to offer McCarthy luck before Union games. And he’d have no choice but to call McCarthy his “father,” as part of a very important deal they have.
“When we play ping pong, if you lose, you have to call the other person ‘father,’” McCarthy said with a laugh after Union practice Wednesday. “It’s good banter. It’s stuff like that that goes a long way. But we know we have each other’s backs.”
McCarthy may have the edge over his fellow ’keeper in ping pong of late but even he’d admit there’s no one better in goal than Blake.
That makes it more palatable for McCarthy to be the Union's backup, and it makes him hungry to try to live up to the team’s high goalkeeping standards when Blake’s away — which he mostly has over the last five games.
“Everyone wants to play,” McCarthy said. “Being a backup at any level is not fun. But I think I’m in a great situation, if not one of the best. I’m backing up the best goalkeeper in the league, and I get to train with him every day. And I try to take advantage of my opportunities when they do come.”
Although the results haven’t been there, with the team going 1-3-1 in the last five games with McCarthy starting, the Philly native certainly has made the most of his chance, making a handful of the kind of highlight-reel saves that fans are accustomed to seeing from Blake.
McCarthy — who may get his sixth straight start Saturday vs. FC Dallas if a hand injury Blake suffered in the Gold Cup final is not yet healed — said he felt like “overall it’s been a really good run,” pointing to his six-save effort in Kansas City on July 6 as “a special game” for him.
And Union head coach Jim Curtin has been pleased to see McCarthy putting in strong performances — all while Blake emerged as one of the best players at the Gold Cup.
“Andre’s talent speaks for itself,” Curtin said. “He’s coming off an incredible Gold Cup performance. John’s done a really good job stepping up his game in a tough spot. It’s always hard to play behind someone, especially at the goalkeeper position because there’s always the waiting-your-turn aspect of it. For him to have the success he’s had speaks to all the hard work he’s put in and peaks to (goalkeeper coach) Oka Nikolov and the great work he’s done with all our goalkeepers. You’re happy for Johnny. He’s stepped up in a big way and has done a good job in the games he’s gotten.”
At one point during McCarthy’s run of games, Curtin even said the goalkeeper out of La Salle University had shown him that he can be a full-time starter in this league. And considering Blake is probably good enough to soon play in a top league in Europe, that means the Union may have their next (star?) goalie waiting patiently in the wings.
“That means a lot,” McCarthy said. “They see that I’m growing as a player. It definitely helps with the confidence when a coach gives you praise like that. At any level, that’s huge. I’m happy to hear that and I’m hoping I can keep making the coaching staff happy.”
Given Blake’s impending return to the lineup, McCarthy knows he may not get many more opportunities in games this season. But that doesn’t mean the 25-year-old can’t continue to showcase his growth and technique in practice, where he and Blake consistently offer each other friendly advice.
“Training with Andre every day is a great opportunity for me,” McCarthy said. “He was the best goalkeeper in the league last year and he might be the best goalkeeper in the league this year. … And we have no problem critiquing each other at any point in time. Even as he walks off the field, I’ll say something to him before anyone else does. It’s not like he takes it like, ‘Oh, he’s being a mean dude.’ No, we appreciate each other. It’s good because we have such a good relationship on the field.”
The two goalkeepers have such a good relationship, in fact, that when Blake returned from the Gold Cup, following his devastating injury exit from Jamaica’s title-game loss to the U.S., McCarthy “went right up to him and gave him a hug and said, ‘Dude, you deserved everything in that tournament, you were the best goalkeeper by far, man.’”
And McCarthy knows that Blake will be right there cheering him on if he gets the start vs. FC Dallas — along with many of his family members, old friends from Northeast Philly, and former teammates from La Salle.
Just like they always do.
“It’s cool to see them all texting me, coming out to the games and really having my back, whether I’m playing or not,” McCarthy said. “Even though I’m the No. 2, I’m home.”