A New York Soccer Story: NYCFC’s Thomas McNamara

Photo by Matt Kremkau

By JACK BELL

NYCFC logoA pretty good soccer player once said: “You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you. If you don’t use your head, using your feet won’t be sufficient.”

That sage, philosophical observation came from the lips and mind of Johan Cruyff. He had a lot to say in the 1970s and 1980s about how he thought the game should be played, and his pedigree at Ajax, with the Dutch national team, and perhaps most a famously at Barcelona lent an air of authority to what some people saw as his perhaps obvious, if loopy observations.

When it comes to using your gray matter on the soccer field, near the top of the class is New York City FC’s midfielder/winger Thomas McNamara. At 5 feet 9 and a slight 170 pounds, McNamara, 26, who is from Pearl River, N.Y., is far from the physical specimen so sought after in professional soccer these days. He may not succeed in muscling opposing players off the ball, but that’s not where he excels.

And though he has lived and breathed soccer since he was a toddler, it has taken a coach with his own lofty pedigree, Patrick Vieira, to recognize brains over brawn.

“He has different characteristics,” Vieira said. “He’s not fast but his brain is going to take him there. Anticipation is what is going on and that is why he is playing at this level. If you look only on the physical side, if you pick players only for the physical it would be difficult for Tommy to play.” 

Now in his fourth season in Major League Soccer, McNamara absorbed his approach to and love of the game from his parents — Thomas and Kerry — both of whom played in college at Ohio Wesleyan.

“I kind of grew up with a ball at my feet,” he said. “I come from a soccer family [his brother Ryan played at the University of New Hampshire; and his sister Kaitlyn is at West Chester University in Pennsylvania]. When I was 4 years old I was put in a rec league, that was the start. When I was 6 I went and played played on the U-8 team at Clarkstown, and that was it. I played a couple of other sports [Irish football, ice hockey, roller hockey and baseball]. But I liked soccer the most.”

Once they got their hands on a DVR, McNamara and his father spent hours poring over recorded games from England’s Premier League, recording two for weekend viewing and watching two more during the week. (That though the younger McNamara confesses to being partial to Glasgow Celtic. But the Scottish league had little or no TV presence here.)

“He would sit there with me and would tell me to watch the central midfielders, watch their tendencies, what they do off the ball and what they do with the ball,” he said. “I learned a lot from those moments. When we watched games, it was less about technical skill, more about what they were are doing, especially off the ball, the passes they made.”

The mental game, playing in your head is what McNamara soaked up while attending school at St. Margaret’s in Pearl River. He was coaxed over the state line to Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., playing for a few years for the successful coach Roy Nygren.

All through his youth career McNamara trained with his father and through a friend became a fan of Stephen McPhail, an Irishman playing in England for Leeds United. “He was the first guy I looked up to,” McNamara said.

In high school, there was only one opportunity, fleeting as it was, with a United States youth international team. When it came time to consider playing in college, McNamara fielded inquires from Brown University, Fordham, St. John’s and Boston University. It wasn’t a very long line and it did not include some of the more elite collegiate programs.

I knew a little why, I wasn’t as athletic as other kids, I wasn’t as big, I wasn’t as physically developed as other kids,” he said. “That was always held against me throughout my life and getting recruited to college and people saying I was never going to be good enough to play at this level or that level because I wasn’t physically gifted enough. But there are a lot of other attributes besides being physically gifted.

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

McNamara before “the” haircut.

“It didn’t bother me growing up when it was held against me. I looked at them and in my head said ‘You’re wrong and I’m going to show you that you’re wrong.’ I knew from 18 years old that I had the ability to be a professional. I still needed to grow in college physically. But I knew that I had it. I looked at other kids around my age and felt I was just as good, but I had different attributes.”

Like brains and the proverbial soccer IQ. What’s more, when McNamara chose Brown in Providence, R.I., he was already thinking and planning for a life beyond soccer, just in case his dream of playing professional was only that — a dream. He left Brown after four years with a degree in business economics.

“I loved everything about Brown, the campus Coach Mike Noonan,” he said. “Then there was the educational side. No. 1, I knew I might not make it as a pro. No. 2, I knew that even if I did it may not last long. Even with a long career, I figured I’d have to work afterward. I got the Ivy League degree, which is huge. Going there was one of the best things I ever did.”

After missing a season at Brown (where he was twice All-Ivy League), McNamara used his final year of eligibility to continue his soccer and education, seeking a Master’s of Science degree in applied economics and statistics at Clemson University (where he made first team All-ACC). He still has work to do, which can only be done on campus in South Carolina. That will have to wait — for now.

Vieira gets the final words about a player who has an important role on an NYCFC team that has begun to gel and look scary-good.

“His brain is faster, much quicker, which is why he is doing really well and playing at this level.”