Tommy McNamara: From Chivas USA to NYCFC cult hero to within a hair of USMNT

Tommy McNamara has impressed with NYCFC, enough to crack the USA's preliminary Gold Cup roster. Does the cult hero have an international future?
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As Tommy McNamara arrived for NYCFC’s home game against the Philadelphia Union about three weeks ago, it was all too easy to think of Samson. After all, the biblical character’s strength dissipates after his hair is cut, and here McNamara was, walking up to Yankee Stadium with a freshly-cut look after years with longer locks. 

During that time with long hair, McNamara had gone from a series of tough situations to a surprisingly influential player in the star-studded NYCFC squad. He became a fan favorite, a player from just up the road in Westchester who was impressing in a stacked midfield. All accomplished with long hair. All, now seemingly in jeopardy. 

Or not. McNamara started and played well against Philadelphia that day, and was named to Bruce Arena’s 40-man preliminary Gold Cup roster less than 24 hours later.

“I didn’t cut my hair with the thought of ‘Oh maybe this will help.’ I think that’s more correlation than causation,” he said with a laugh at a media roundtable this week. “But it was funny it did work out that way I just wanted a change.”

And what a change the international game would be for McNamara. The 26-year-old West Nyack, N.Y., native now has one more game to impress Arena enough to earn a spot on the national team's 23-man Gold Cup roster, and it comes this weekend on on a big stage, against NYCFC's local rival, the New York Red Bulls. The stakes are high now, especially in comparison to his introduction to the professional game.

McNamara, who also holds Ireland eligibility, played four years of college soccer at Brown, then another at Clemson while he worked towards a master’s degree. That degree would come in hand in case soccer didn't work out, which it easily might not have. 

A Chivas USA draft pick, Tommy McNamara has blossomed with NYCFC.

A Chivas USA draft pick, Tommy McNamara has blossomed with NYCFC.

McNamara was drafted by Chivas USA in 2014, but his rookie season was quickly ended by a torn ACL. Then Chivas USA was contracted. D.C. United picked him up in the 2014 Dispersal Draft, then left him unprotected for the 2014 Expansion Draft a month later. NYCFC swooped to pick McNamara up. For six months, McNamara struggled to make an impact. Then, in his first start with the club, the seeds were planted for his cult following to grow. 

That stunning strike serves as the unofficial start of NYCFC fans' affinity for McNamara. But really, it goes beyond the goals. In a video feature produced by his club, McNamara said that if he could wish for any superpower, “it would definitely be to be super fast, because…I’m not that fast.” His career outside of soccer? “Probably working in finance in New York City or something like that.” In a game, and a team, full of big personalities, McNamara’s persistent off-field normalcy stands out. 

On the field, though, it’s a different story. McNamara hasn’t always started, but since that goal he’s been a consistent feature of a midfield that’s featured, among others, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard. And though he hasn’t always scored, his hard work off the ball has been a key feature of NYCFC’s rise under Patrick Vieira the last two seasons. 

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“I think Tommy is a player who, when you see him or look at him play you think ‘Yeah, O.K.,’” Viera told in 2016. “But he’s really smart on the field–you tell him what he has to do, you tell him once and he understands it. And he can score goals as well.” 

For McNamara, who has 13 goals and 13 assists in 68 career MLS games, the prospect of taking those skills to the Gold Cup with the United States is enticing. He said he doesn’t mind playing centrally or out wide, both positions where he’s thrived for NYCFC. The key now, he says, is to try to keep things as normal as possible. After all, that's why he's in this position in the first place. 

“[The Gold Cup] is maybe slightly in the back of my mind, but I’m just trying to stay focused on our games here," he said. “Hopefully I’m a part of the 23, and I’d be very excited to represent the country.”

But if he does, there’s no guarantee the hair will stay the same.