- In American soccer, we often hear the “what if our best athletes played soccer?” hypothetical. Jack McGlynn may not fit the classic, American athlete stereotype, but he is in the midst of an impressive rise
- The 19-year-old midfielder has an international profile and is changing games for the Philadelphia Union in MLS
It was scoreless in a Labor Day weekend showdown between the Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls when the Union regained possession on the edge of their defensive third. Jogging towards his goal about fifteen yards from the ball, Jack McGlynn instantly sensed an opportunity in this transition moment. He scanned the field while gesturing to teammate Matt Real to find his feet.
Real’s pass was just ahead of McGlynn’s right foot, setting the 19-year-old American central midfielder in motion. He completed the triangle with a first-time delivery to Daniel Gazdag near midfield, then continued his straight run to receive a ball clipped back from Gazdag. The rest? Well, the rest was breathtaking.
“I saw [New York Red Bulls defender John] Tolkin come flying at me and a lot of space on the other side, so I know I have that in my locker to flick it over him. And then Mikael [Uhre] made a great run and it was a good ball, so it was just a good team goal,” McGlynn told Backheeled in a recent interview. McGlynn’s lethal left foot has already gone viral, but could his right one keep adding to his highlight reel after that perfectly weighted assist against the Red Bulls?
“Hopefully,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been working on it a lot, so hopefully it keeps happening.”
FROM NEW YORK TO PHILADELPHIA
The Union beat their Eastern Conference rivals 2-0 on that Saturday night in early September, with McGlynn victorious in his return to the New York area. He grew up in Queens where his father, Jim, introduced him and his brother, Conor, to the sport for the first time. Conor is now a midfielder for Hartford Athletic in the USL Championship.
“My dad came from Ireland so he got us into soccer, me and my brother both, when we were really young. My brother’s five years older than me, so when I was a kid growing up I would go to the field with him every day and train with my dad. We have a huge soccer family,” McGlynn said, also grateful that his mother, Kim, was always driving him to training to help support his dream of becoming a professional.
Jim coached at BW Gottschee, a renowned youth club in Queens, where his son Jack developed until he joined the Union academy at 16. In 2020, he made the jump to Union II in the USL Championship and signed a homegrown contract that would begin the following year. In 2021, McGlynn’s rather steady ascent continued when he cracked the Union’s first team and made 25 appearances between Philadelphia’s MLS games and their run in the Concacaf Champions League.
McGlynn agrees that his progress has been fairly linear. Until this year, that is.
The last few months may mark the foundation of a more meteoric rise, one that started in earnest during the U.S.’s undefeated run at this summer’s Concacaf U-20 Championship in Honduras.
“We clicked as a team basically the whole tournament right from the start,” McGlynn said, hailing head coach Mikey Varas’ impact in his first cycle. “He loves each and every one of us like we’re his kids. He’s a great coach for us. He lets us play how we want, he’s always so direct with us, he’ll always tell us the truth no matter what. Good or bad, it’s always constructive. It’s a joy to play under him, really.”
McGlynn emerged as a key piece in the midfield puzzle as the Americans qualified for next year’s U-20 World Cup and, following three consecutive failures, the Olympics. They punched their ticket to Paris 2024 with a convincing 3-0 semifinal win over the hosts.
“Playing against Honduras was special,” McGlynn recalls. “Their stadium was packed, whistles, vuvuzelas everywhere, it was a crazy, crazy atmosphere and to go there and do what we did, it was special for all of us.”
The United States’ Concacaf U-20 title was also a milestone for Philadelphia’s player development efforts. Paxten Aaronson brought home both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot (7 goals), barely beating out Quinn Sullivan (6 goals). Brandon Craig was also a regular at center back. All three of those players, plus McGlynn, are Philadelphia Union homegrowns. McGlynn appreciates that ever since playing for the Union’s U-17s under Ryan Richter (who’s now a first team assistant), the four of them have continued to push each other.
“It’s really special to have those three with me all the time. We’re all best friends off the field, we spend so much time with each other every day. We’re all really competitive with each other. After training, we do finishing with each other. It’s always a competition, we’re never not competing,” McGlynn said. “We play teqball before training. It’s always a competition but it’s healthy, it gets us all better and that’s what we want.”
Since Philly’s young players returned from their time with the U.S. U-20s, McGlynn’s MLS minutes have increased as a central midfielder on the left side of head coach Jim Curtin’s midfield diamond. While there are many reasons behind the Union’s surge towards the Supporters’ Shield, at least one of them is more precise passing. McGlynn, who is smooth as he receives the ball and surgical with his passing, deserves some credit for his team’s improvement.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF MIDFIELDER
You’ve likely heard the “what if our best athletes played soccer” hypothetical in the past, with its idea that the U.S. would be better at soccer if it could tap into a larger pool of elite athletes.
Well, McGlynn isn’t a classic, big-bodied American athlete. He doesn’t have elite strength, speed, or acceleration, but his quality as a midfielder is unique in the United States. The U.S. has never truly had the midfield genius that countries who win the World Cup tend to have. Andrea Pirlo, Xavi, Toni Kroos. Someone whose elegance equals their vision, who combines technique with incisive, perhaps disguised distribution. Someone whose passing range and ball retention create possibilities in possession and force their opponents to respect them.
At just 19, McGlynn is flashing some of those qualities.
“Growing up I wasn’t the biggest guy, I wasn’t the fastest, so I had to work on other things to make it to the top. I think definitely people overlooked me as a kid growing up, and now I think I’ve proven that doesn’t really matter,” McGlynn said. “I used to be a No. 10 growing up playing with Gottschee. I used to be really small, I was always the smallest kid and I’d be playing so up. I’d have to adapt and just play as a No. 10 and be the creator. I think it’s adapted to more of a drop back and get on the ball and control the game type of player.”
In terms of his national team future, McGlynn isn’t taking a spot on the U-20 World Cup roster for granted. Nevertheless, he’s itching to make history next year in Indonesia as the United States’ first U-20 team to win the tournament.
“We’re not there yet, I’m not locked into the team yet so hopefully the coach calls me in there,” McGlynn said. “As a team, I think we should go there thinking we can win it. I genuinely believe we can, we have a really special group. We have a lot of talent. As a team, our goal should be to win the whole thing.”
Looking at the senior team, the U.S. men’s national team will likely have the youngest squad at the World Cup in Qatar. Their experience this winter will create lofty expectations for the 2026 World Cup on home soil, so to meet those expectations – to truly contend – the United States are going to need reinforcements. McGlynn aims to be a part of the wave that elevates his country into the international elite.
“I’d love to play for the national team at some point, it’s a really big goal of mine. And playing in Europe one day is also a goal of mine. I’m in no rush, I need to prove myself here a lot more. I feel like I haven’t done enough to make it there yet. But hopefully one day I could play in Europe.”
For McGlynn and other MLS academy graduates nationwide, former Philadelphia Union attacker Brenden Aaronson represents the blueprint for borderline seamless success overseas.
Aaronson, despite playing for Leeds United, is one of a number of Union homegrowns with a soft spot for Liverpool, though he doesn’t mention it often to avoid igniting what could rapidly become reasonable transfer speculation. Both his brother Paxten and McGlynn root for the Reds, and McGlynn admits the teenage dream to sign with his favorite club still burns.
“We always talk about it. It’s a dream, obviously, everyone dreams of it. So it would be amazing if that could actually happen.”
Multiple American exports featuring together for one of the world’s biggest clubs no longer sounds as far-fetched as it once did. Today’s national team core is redefining what is possible for the USMNT’s players in Europe. As it turns out, many of those key U.S. players were once multisport athletes. Gregg Berhalter highlighted Weston McKennie as a living answer to the “what if our NFL or NBA guys played soccer” hypothetical, and McKennie, who played football when he was young, believes he could’ve been in the NFL. Gio Reyna, Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Chris Richards and Joe Scally all played competitive basketball before deciding to concentrate entirely on soccer.
McGlynn may not be your stereotypical athlete like many of his potential future national teammates, but don’t be surprised when he finds ways to make key plays from midfield. And don’t worry, he still has enough in his bag to show a little something on the court, too.
I asked McGlynn what people should know about his life outside of soccer, and he didn’t hesitate.
“I’m a nice basketball player. I used to play basketball growing up, and I’ll give anyone buckets.”