Commentary / Union Academy

Five Union Academy products to watch this season

Photo: Earl Gardner

As Philadelphia Union’s offseason dwindles to a close, the idea that the club’s front office might make another big signing, either from overseas or within MLS, becomes more and more unlikely. As head coach Jim Curtin put it, “The later it gets, the more likely it is we’re gonna go with the guys who are here.” That was in regards to filling the no. 10 position in particular, but it applies to the whole team just the same.

Several questions have arisen from this prospect. Questions of position: Who will play the no. 10? Who will play center back? Right back? Deeper questions about the club itself: What are the Union’s goals as an organization? Do they want to win, or are they just looking to turn a profit? What is their strategy? Perhaps the most important questions are how should the organization measure success this season, and how should the fans?

Union Sporting Director Earnie Stewart has made it clear in the past that he’s not striving simply for immediate wins. He is looking to build a sustained success, and indeed, he is looking to change U.S. Soccer. His most valuable tool in those regards, and undoubtedly one of the primary reasons he initially joined and has stayed with the Union, is the Union Academy.

An efficient academy is the most sustainable way to build success for any club. Successful academy products can produce on the field for a club or turn a profit in transfer fees or both. Understanding how the Union’s academy products might affect the team can help answer most or all of the questions above. As the prospect of another big name signing fades, a strategy of developing and, just as importantly, playing academy products will be paramount to this season’s “success.”

Here are five Union Academy products to watch out for this season:

5. Mark McKenzie

Age: 18 years old (almost 19)

Several, if not most, of this group will play for Bethlehem Steel more than the Union this season. As McKenzie joins the ever-crowded center back field, he is almost certainly headed for the Steel this season. Still, it’s worth noting that after spending one year playing in college for the number one ranked Wake Forest, McKenzie decided to sign a professional contract with the Union. At a decent height of 5 feet 11 inches, McKenzie is a solid 1v1 defender who will offer a lot the Steel.

4. Derrick Jones

Age: 20 years old (almost 21)

These numerical rankings are by no means scientific. Still, some will be surprised to see Jones at number four. The 6-foot-4 Junior Lone Star and Union Academy product had 12 caps with the Union last season, starting in eight, and he showed immediate promise as a skilled, aggressive destroyer. But with the Union’s captain and franchise player Alejandro Bedoya now firmly planted in Jones’s no. 6 position, it will be tough for Jones to get meaningful minutes.

Still, Jones showed some serious potential in his 12 games with the Union and in his performance in the U-20 World Cup in particular. I’d like to see him come on at least as a sub, perhaps moving Bedoya out to the wing. And if the all-too-familiar scenario should happen in which the Union see themselves hopelessly out of playoff contention, start the kid. At 21-years-old, the club needs to develop him or display his talents to interested clubs.

3. Matt Real

Age: 18 years old

Real is definitely an interesting prospect. Since the Union parted ways with Giliano Wijnaldum, only Fabinho sits above him on the depth chart at the left-back position. The Brazilian veteran is 32-years-old now, so you can bet he won’t start every game. That means Real will get some serious game play at the ever-elusive left back position. That could be huge.

Making 18 appearances with Bethlehem Steel last season, all of them starts, Real is the type of attacking outside back that the Union like and at times desperately need. As left backs are hard to come by in most leagues, if Real takes advantage of the opportunities he’s given, you’re looking at either a long-time Union staple or a big transfer fee down the road.

2. Auston Trusty

Age: 19 years old

Similar to Jones’s situation, Trusty is a super promising player that may find it difficult to get meaningful minutes this year. As mentioned earlier, the center back position is a saturated one, and it’s unlikely Stewart and Curtin knew what they had in Jack Elliott when they signed Trusty to his homegrown deal.

Still, Trusty is in the race for a starting position just like all the other center backs on the roster, particularly if the club goes with a “play-the-academy” strategy. Next to a distributive Jack Elliott or a speedy Josh Yaro, the 6-foot-3 Trusty can fill that enforcer role left vacant by Oguchi Onyewu’s departure this offseason. It’s true that veteran Richie Marquez is also in contention for that role, but if it is at all close, Curtin may want to go with the younger Trusty.

As a developing prospect, he needs professional playing time. Not to mention that his market value should likely increase with meaningful minutes. The club claims they’ve already received interest from overseas before signing him. If Trusty can get playing time and live up to his potential, that interest will only rise.

1. Anthony Fontana

Age: 18 years old

If there’s one Academy product to watch, it’s Fontana. While McKenzie, Jones, and Trusty vie for clogged roster spots, Fontana’s preferred attacking midfield position is an infamous vacuum at the moment. Playing for the Union in their friendly against Swansea last season and starting in seven of his 11 appearances with Bethlehem Steel last year, Fontana is one player whom the Union almost certainly consider as a part of their future. However, after failing to sign an elite no. 10, the club may have to consider him a part of their present.

Though he’s a bit small at 5 feet 8 inches, Fontana’s strengths match all of those the Union were missing at the position last year. His distribution going forward is intelligent and precise, and he positions himself off the ball for success. Plus, he is the type of two-way midfielder that Curtin loves. At 18-years-old, Anthony Fontana may start at Philadelphia Union’s most important position.

19 Comments

  1. I predict the Union will suck and the kids won’t see a lot of time on the field. This prediction is based upon Curtin’s actions over the previous four seasons.

  2. As I pass from what pessimistic-leaning caution about a #10 signing to sheer certainty that this team hasn’t been able to sign anyone, I only hope that we will have the opportunity to watch these players on the first team. Don’t put a development team squad together, tell me it’s competitive and bury all these kids on a bench while rack up poor results with a 90-year-old midfield trio.

    • Yeah, If we don’t sign a legit #10 then we need to sell 1 of Bedoya or Medunajin, and have most of our other vet starters (Fabinho/Gaddis/Ilsinho) be spot starters/subs.

      • Agreed. If we can’t put a decent team on the field, then fontana, najem, jones, and trusty need to start every game. Otherwise, whay’s the point?

  3. Maybe Fontana gets 300, DJ gets 500 minutes. Maybe.
    .
    I’m not a “play the kids proponent “, I’m a “play your best XI” guy. If Jones gets significant time it’s because Haris is out and this team becomes very negative in possession and creativity.
    .
    To me Real at LB is the only one intriguing. If he can defend and add to the attack with Accam, maybe they get a little exciting. If Accam is a – defender at LW, we may get steamrolled on that side, in which case it doesn’t matter who is at the 6/8.
    .
    Good article though. I’d add Earnie has made it clear through his inaction that immediate wins or otherwise don’t seem to be a priority.

    • Jones got 700 minutes last year and Creavalle got 550 and Najem got 153. That was all with Bedoya and Medunjanin getting a ton of minutes. I think there is time to go around in the midfield.
      .
      It seems like Trusty and Elliot are going to be your starters at CB so that’s good.
      .
      The young wingers are gonna get some time.
      .
      There are a lot of minutes to go around and all we did this offseason is replace Pontius with Accam and get rid of a bunch of our overpriced backups. The young guys are going to have to play a lot of minutes no matter what.

      • I dont think Trusty sees the field. I think the guy they brought in will sneak in to be your other starter. Call it a hunch. What little we heard rumour-wise was about CB.Not sure they’re sold on their own youth. They can believe in academy products as away forward, but I’m not sure Earnie and Jim are sold on this crop.
        .
        Not sure why you included Creavalle, hardly a “kid”.

      • Scotty,
        Which other guy? The LB/RB signed to the Steel?

      • Because I was showing how many midfield minutes went around last year to show your minutes listed seemed really low.
        .
        The dude they signed is an outside back. Maybe he gets playing time there but he sure isn’t going to be at CB. They have been talking Trusty up for awhile now, he started all year last year for Steel, and he’s started pretty much every preseason game so far. I think they want him to win that spot and now it’s up to him.

  4. I just don’t see Curtin giving a lot of these guys lots of time. He’s not someone who makes a many changes. I just can’t quite grasp why people think there is going to be this big change all the sudden, other than pure optimism.
    .
    I just struggle to believe we sit here, weeks before another season, with basically the same team as last year. We will clearly not compete for a title, I just hope that the younger players get time.
    .
    Real over Fabinho
    Trusty over Marquez
    Najem over Ilsinho
    Those are no insane starters, make it happen Jim.

  5. Interesting article, but a distraction from two very significant facts:
    1) In spite of it having been the “highest priority” for the last 1.5 years the union have failed to sign a high-MLS-quality #10. (Fontana may be in the future, but he is not now.)
    2) In the 8 years that I have watched the union, I have not seen them develop one high-quality rookie into a high-quality MLS veteran player. Keegan looked poised to then didn’t. The list in years before him is long.
    I still hope that they can change both of these facts, but that hope seems slight against the preponderance of past evidence.

    • They developed Andre Blake into a star. They developed Richie Marquez into a solid player. Obviously the other young guys are wait and see. They improved Fabinho and CJ Sapong. It’s not like everyone gets worse here. But that #10 thing is glaring. And unacceptable.

      • Yes – agreed on Blake.
        Don’t recall if they got Marquez as rookie.
        The other guys were not rookies. I didn’t say that they made people worse, just that its not clear that they can develop rookie (field) players.

      • They drafted Marquez out of that NAIA school no one had ever heard of, Redwood U or Redbird or Redsomething.
        .
        You can’t possibly be serious to say we’ve developed Fabinho? What’s even the basis for “improved”?
        .
        The track record on player development is decidedly poor. Look no further than the career trajectories of players after they leave. Blake was what, 24 when he was drafted as the “most MLS ready player available”? It’s not like he came in as an academy kid. He was already older than MacMath who was already playing. He’s been fantastic, but the parts of his game everyone has identified haven’t dramatically improved. His command of the back 4 and distribution still need work. I’m not sure if it’s the quantity of the coaching or the quality, probably both. The U are still one of (if not the) smallest technical staffs in MLS. Just another underinvested area of the club.

  6. Here’s some young players I’ll be watching this season:
    Ezequiel Barco

    Diego Rossi

    Josue Coleman

    Jesus Medina

    Santiago Mosquera

    Will all of these signings be succesful? Of course not. But I’m willing to bet they see more MLS minutes than the five above, and have more of an impact for their clubs than the five players named
    for the Union.

    Yes, play the kids. But what if the kids aren’t good enough?

  7. Prediction: The Union will be a reunion of more dull play, lack of victories, 3rd rate coaching, a weak roster, and in general simply picking up where it left off last season. Really…save your money, don’t waste it in Chester. Empty seats will be the only way to bring the pathetic play of this franchise to an end. Hey Columbus, want a franchise, cheap?

  8. Fun to think the Union will play their youth. Won’t happen but it’s fun to think. Maybe I’ll create them all on Fifa and have my own season of youthful Philadelphia soccer.

  9. ” McKenzie cited North Carolina and Wake Forest as a couple of his favorites right now, though it is early in his recruiting process and more offers will almost certainly come as his recruitment continues to gain steam. What would it mean to McKenzie to receive an offer from Clemson and have the opportunity to follow in Lawrence’s footsteps as a Tiger?

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