It was an uncharacteristic situation.
In a home match against Bethlehem Steel FC on Aug. 26, Jamal Jack gathered a through-ball from Kevin Kerr just inside the 18-yard box. The center back moved the ball to his right foot and released a shot at the net defended by Jake McGuire.
As the sphere traveled toward the goalmouth, a Steel FC defender deflected it, causing it to alter direction and slide past McGuire into the bottom-left corner of the net.
“All eyes were on the goal,” Jack said. “[My last goal] was a year ago in El Salvador. It’s been a long time.”
The goal was Jack’s first in a Hounds uniform and helped the club post a 3-2 victory against the in-state foe. Kerr, who assisted Jack’s tally, later netted the game-winner in the 75th minute and went on to be named USL Player of the Week after his four-point performance.
“Even at 2-2, boys still were flying forward, boys still believed that we would win,” Kerr said.
As 31 different players have recorded playing time for the Hounds this season, Kerr and Jack have provided leadership from the opening matches of spring to the club’s current five-game undefeated run. Both players have combined for more than 4,000 minutes this year, as Kerr (2,273) paces the team in the statistic whereas Jack (2,093) leads all Hounds defenders.
“I think both guys are number one experienced,” head coach Dave Brandt said. “Kevin in general with the Riverhounds and Jamal, it’s his first year here, but he’s got a wealth of pro experience.”
Before Kerr potted his game-winning goal against Steel FC, he was in the midst of one of the longest scoring droughts of his career.
Heading into the match, the midfielder had not scored in 23 straight matches, as his previous tally had occurred in the season opener back on March 25. But this all changed when he found a loose ball on the opposing goal line.
As Bethlehem midfielder James Chambers failed to clear the ball from danger, Kerr rushed in and hit it into the net with a sliding shot to provide the Hounds with a one-goal lead they would not relinquish.
“It was weighing on me a little bit,” Kerr said about not scoring since the season opener. “I kind of expected it to bounce off the post. I just gambled and some nights they drop for you. Tonight was a good night.”
Despite battling a goalless streak for much of the season, Kerr found other ways to help catalyze the Hounds attack. He currently leads the Hounds with five assists and also ranks second in the Eastern Conference with 55 chances created.
It can be tough for many players to find ways to be effective in scoring slumps like Kerr’s, but the Pittsburgh veteran still remained active on the field and as a leader in the locker room – a quality that makes him an ideal captain for the Black and Gold.
“With Kevin, especially this year, it’s just been a constant high-level of concentration, focus and work ethic,” Brandt said. “There are lots of moments for sure – not the least of which his goal against Steel – but that’s just the result of a constant focus, work ethic and willingness to lead in that sense by example.”
On his ideal poster, Jack would be depicted heading the ball away from danger.
The defender has often headed and claimed possession over opposing attackers throughout the season, leading the team with 58 aerial duals won and 133 clearances.
Jack’s heading skills and clearing abilities were on full display last time out in a road match against FC Cincinnati on Sept. 2. In the 33rd minute, Andrew Wiedeman attempted a cross past the Pittsburgh goal, which was vacated by goalkeeper Matt Perrella, as he stepped from the net to cut down the angle along the end line.
Being the only obstacle in the way of Wiedeman’s cross to a Cincinnati teammate breaking free near the back post, Jack reacted quickly and headed the dangerous scoring chance out from the penalty area. This clearance, along with seven others, helped the Hounds to a 1-1 draw in front of a hostile environment and crowd of 22,643 at Nippert Stadium.
“That full [backline] is super young and they do a great job,” Brandt said, “but to have Jamal’s steadying influence in that sense is really important.”
In games such as these, the 29-year-old extends his veteran leadership throughout the rest of the backline, which starting lineup over the past four matches has consisted of a 24-year-old, a 25-year-old and a 21-year-old rookie, in addition to Jack.
“From my experience, I give to the younger guys around me,” Jack said. “I tell them, ‘let’s go, let’s try not to make any silly mistakes.’”
Throughout the 2017 season, the Pittsburgh backline has featured quite a few combinations. Joe Greenspan and Lalas Abubakar are no longer with the club, as their loan periods have ended. Meanwhile, opening match-starter Rich Balchan has been out of the lineup since May, as he rehabilitates from a season-ending Achilles injury.
Jack, along with backline mate Taylor Washington, are the only defenders to record at least 1,000 minutes this season, which has seen 26 games up to this point.
“Jamal’s the strong, silent type,” Brandt said. “It’s not necessarily what he says as much as how he plays and what he does. I do think when Jamal speaks, people listen because he’s not always chattering, But when he says something, people will know it matters.”
Each week, Jack has taken it upon himself to lock down the opponent’s leading scoring threat, and the Charlotteville, Trinidad and Tobago native has hit his stride this past month. In three of the Hounds’ past four matches, he has recorded at least 10 clearances and aided the defense in allowing just one goal per game during this stretch.
Louisville City FC is up next on the schedule and remains one of the most difficult teams in the Eastern Conference to defend. The club ranks No. 1 in the East in shots (391) and No. 2 in goals (45). Despite this seemingly daunting task, Jack and the Hounds backline will embrace this challenge.
“I’m ready for the battle any time – whoever,” Jack said. “Anyone that comes my way, I’m ready for the challenge.”