Commentary: Jack McInerney is gone but fellow Union original Amobi Okugo shouldn't have to follow

Commentary: Jack McInerney is gone but fellow Union original Amobi Okugo shouldn't have to follow

You might have heard that the Union traded Jack McInerney last week and you might have read Steve Moore’s analysis of the surprising deal on this site.

While I’m not here to argue with Steve’s point that the trade shouldn’t cause Union fans to panic (SERIOUSLY, DON'T PANIC!!!), and while I agree there are a couple of valid reasons why the deal was a made, I would like to take a different position here.

That position is that, in the wake of this trade, the Union should do everything they can to lock up Amobi Okugo – who, like McInerney, was an original member of the franchise’s first draft class – to a long-term deal.

But let’s backtrack for a minute first.

McInerney, for all of his faults and streaky play, was a young forward that had been with the Union since the first day of the franchise’s first season. He scored his first professional goal against the mighty Galaxy in Los Angeles when he was 17. He started in the playoffs the following season. He earned a permanent place in the starting lineup in 2012. And he became the “next big thing” in American soccer in 2013 before he even turned 21, riding a goal-scoring surge to the MLS All-Star Game and his first U.S. national team call-up.

Basically, as the Philadelphia Union grew up, so did McInerney. And while nostalgia and loyalty is not a reason to keep a player, the Union have – fairly or unfairly – developed somewhat of a reputation as a club that jettisons players that are fan favorites who have been here from the beginning. (Part of the reason former manager Peter Nowak was fired was partly due to how he handled the trades that sent away franchise originals Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Califf and Danny Mwanga.)

But McInerney is gone. The Union didn’t think he was a natural fit in their 4-3-3 system, they didn’t like how he stopped scoring following his U.S. national team call-up, they didn’t like his rising pricetag, and they didn’t think they’d be able to re-sign him to a new contract at an appropriate price. (You can read more of John Hackworth’s rationale behind the trade here).

But just a quick look at the latest MLS salary info, which was released yesterday, will tell you that the Union are willing to open up their wallets. Designated Player Maurice Edu, for instance, is making $650,000 this season – more than any other Union player ever. Yes, Edu is a World Cup veteran who has brought some much-needed stability to the Union midfield. But if the Union are willing to pay that much for him, they should be just as willing to give hefty raises to players that are being groomed to perhaps one day follow Edu to the U.S. national team.

Players like Amobi Okugo.

The only holdover who’s played for the franchise continuously since the start of its inaugural season, Okugo is an extremely talented player with a good head on his shoulders and a very likeable personality (if you’re not following him on Twitter, you should be). At 23, he’s already emerged as one of the league’s most promising young center backs, he has extensive experience in the U.S. youth national team system, and he has the unique skill set to star as both a defender (where he’s played with the Union) and as a holding midfielder (where he’s played most of his career). (You can read my brilliantly crafted profile of him from last year here.)

Yes, Okugo has said he hopes to one day play in Europe. Many Americans feel this way because the salaries are higher and the stage is grander. But MLS salaries are on the rise and many of the best U.S. players are opting to cash in and play here (some, like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, are returning from Europe; others, like Omar Gonzalez, are passing up the chance to play in other leagues to stay in MLS). As Okugo has eloquently stated, there’s also the idea that players like him want to eventually go overseas because they grew up watching the Premier League and not MLS, a league that was still in its infancy back then. But that, too, could be changing.

Basically, it all comes down to this: if the Union want Okugo to stay in Philly, they can certainly try to keep him here. They can make him a Designated Player. They can have him replace the aging Brian Carroll as the team’s captain (and, perhaps, holding midfielder). They can scoff at any trade offers from around the league that doesn’t include big-time returns. They can build the team around him. And if he develops into a true MLS star, they can then listen to offers from Europe.

It doesn’t happen often – especially in soccer – but there’s something romantic about a player spending his entire career with one team. It’s even more romantic when a rookie and an expansion team grow up together.

It won’t happen for McInerney in Philly. But it can still happen for Okugo. And it probably should.

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

NEW YORK -- John Wall had 29 points and 13 assists, scoring Washington's final four points in the last 32 seconds as the surging Wizards beat the New York Knicks 113-110 on Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall down the stretch to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Carmelo Anthony's miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

Anthony finished with 34 points but Wall stole the ball from Brandon Jennings to prevent the Knicks from attempting a 3-pointer that could have tied it (see full recap).

Leonard scores 34 to lead Spurs over Nuggets
SAN ANTONIO -- Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver's three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson's shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol's return.

Irving, James lead Cavs over Suns
CLEVELAND -- Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, All-Star teammate LeBron James had 21 points and 15 assists, and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked more like themselves at home in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road trip (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss at Golden State. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance and ball movement while improving to 30-11 -- the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA championship season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a goal and an assist to lead the Washington Capitals to a 7-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night.

Jay beagle, Brett Connolly, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams also scored, and Alex Ovechkin and Daniel Winnik each had two assists to help Washington earn at least a point in its 12th straight game (10-0-2) for an NHL-best 66 points.

Braden Holtby bounced back from his roughest outing of the season with 22 saves. Holtby was pulled after giving up a season-high five goals on 26 shots in an 8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Monday. He improved to 22-8-4 and 5-0 lifetime against St. Louis (see full recap).

Grabner scores 2 goals, Rangers top Leafs
TORONTO -- Michael Grabner scored two goals against his former team, helping the New York Rangers snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei and J.T. Miller added goals for New York, and Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves following a series of rough outings.

Tyler Bozak and Zach Hyman scored for Toronto, which had a three-game winning streak stopped. The Maple Leafs had earned 21 of a possible 26 points in their previous 13 games (10-2-1). Frederik Andersen gave up four goals on 40 shots (see full recap).

Tavares leads Islanders to shutout of Stars
NEW YORK -- Getting a new coach this week didn't change things much for the Islanders -- and oddly enough, that's a good thing for New York.

John Tavares narrowly missed out on his second hat trick in a week, Thomas Greiss got his second straight shutout and the Islanders beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Thursday night in their first game since firing longtime coach Jack Capuano.

New York canned Capuano in the middle of his seventh season Tuesday, replacing him on an interim basis with Doug Weight (see full recap).

Niederreiter, Wild dodge letdown, edge Coyotes
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nino Niederreiter had two power-play goals and an assist, including the go-ahead score for the Minnesota Wild with 7:06 remaining in a 4-3 victory over Arizona on Thursday night after the Coyotes came back from a two-goal deficit.

With Shane Doan in the penalty box for hooking, Niederreiter knocked in a nifty redirect of Mikael Granlund's slap shot for the winner. Devan Dubnyk stopped 20 shots for the Wild, who are 18-2-2 in their last 22 games.

Louis Domingue made 21 saves for the Coyotes, who lost their fourth in a row and fell to 2-12-1 in their last 15 games starting with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota in Arizona on Dec. 17 (see full recap).