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Homegrown alone: Has Derrick Jones been left behind?

Photo: Earl Gardner

In one way, 2018 has been a banner year for Philadelphia Union.

Four different graduates of YSC Academy have earned their first MLS starts. Left back Matt Real and center back Mark McKenzie filled in for injured starters. Eighteen-year-old Anthony Fontana debuted as the opening day No. 10 and scored the first goal of the Union’s season. The most impressive has been center back Auston Trusty, who has played every minute of every game for Philadelphia.

The success of these homegrown players has placed the Union at the forefront of the youth movement sweeping MLS. With one of – if not the most – expensive academies in the league finally bearing fruit, the Union are firmly entrenched in the national conversation regarding youth development. YSC Academy has joined the academies of FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls as a prime example for cultivating young talent in the United States.

There is a fifth Homegrown player on the Union roster, however: Derrick Jones.

The forgotten homegrown

If you’re in need of a reminder, Jones was the first YSC graduate to start for the Union, making his debut in the 2017 opener against Vancouver Whitecaps. The center midfielder went on to start seven more games, with the last coming on July 6 in Kansas City.

Since then, Jones has vanished.

The Ghanaian-born player received only a two-minute cameo late in the season to conclude his rookie season. Of the 1,175 minutes given to Union homegrowns in 2018, only five can be attributed to Jones, which came late in the season opener. More alarming, Jones hasn’t been a part of the game day roster since the second match of the season.

It begs the obvious question:

Is Derrick Jones still a key part of the Union’s future?

Before that can be answered, the reason for Jones’s fall must be addressed.

Part of it is circumstance. Two veteran leaders are firmly entrenched at center midfield for the Union, and they seldom leave games.

“He’s at a stage in his development where he happens to play behind the captain of our team [Alejandro Bedoya] and a Bosnian international [Haris Medunjanin] who’s also a captain,” Union head coach Jim Curtin told PSP. “So that’s a little bit unfortunate.”

Bedoya has been the Union’s best player in 2018, one of the few guys not falling short of expectations. Medunjanin was arguably Philadelphia’s most important player in 2017. He’s also one of Curtin’s favorites, often drawing effusive praise from the coach.

Circumstance does not excuse Jones’s own role in the situation.

“There’s little things he can still improve: to recognize training habits every day, a little more consistency day in and day out in training,” Curtin said. “And that’s something we maybe sent a message and dropped Derrick from the 18 this year.”

Most 21-year-olds can be forgiven for a less than ideal work ethic. But Jones is not most 21-year-olds. He’s a professional soccer player trying to supplant two players who have captained their respective national teams.

It’s a message that’s been received.

The path back

Some young players sulk when challenged. Jones has done the opposite.

Jones has impressed in his time this year with the Union’s USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel. More impressive than his on-the-field play has been his role with the team. The midfielder has worn the captain’s armband in each of the Steel’s last two matches.

“He’s had a good response. He’s come back now with a stronger mentality. He’s still a guy I’m very high on,” said Curtin.

Jones echoed the same to PSP when asked if it was frustrating to work his way back into the starting 11.

“Yeah, but it is for every player in the same spot as me,” Jones said. “It’s always very hard, but you always try to work hard and get back to where I was last year.”

When asked if he still believed in the process and understands what his coach is asking of him, he answered with an emphatic “Yes.”

“Consistency,” Jones said. “Coming here every day and just don’t fall off, just keep going and train hard every day.”

“I have a lot of guys in front of me that always get me going and help me every day I come out here,” Jones said. “I’m trying to work hard every day. Any time I get the chance, I’ll be ready.”

That chance might be coming sooner rather than later.

“I just spoke with him today and talked about having a good week,” Curtin told PSP last Monday. “This [week] we have three games in a week, so we’re going to need our whole roster. We’re going to need everybody to be ready to go.”

Curtin has often been criticized for his tendency to stick with his starters regardless of situation. Despite his comments from a week ago, he already walked those back during his press conference Tuesday. When asked about squad rotation for the Wednesday clash in Columbus, Curtin said, “There won’t be much this game.”

Another hurdle for Jones is one other player who sits ahead of him on the depth chart: Warren Creavalle.

While it might be more valuable for Jones to get meaningful minutes with Bethlehem, Curtin indicated Creavalle is the preferred MLS choice regardless of the situation.

“It’s a healthy competition there,” Curtin said. “Warren’s been the guy who’s been through the seasons, the battles. Right now, Warren is a notch above Derrick in the coaching staff’s and my eyes.”

Is Derrick Jones part of the Union’s future?

Yes.

Bedoya is 31 years old. Medunjanin is 33 years old. While they both have plenty of soccer left to play, it would be ideal to season Jones this year while easing the burden of the two veterans.

Medunjanin is unique in MLS, but Jones is viewed as closer to a traditional No. 6, especially in the system Curtin deploys.

“We do a high press now, and for me that’s kind of my game,” Jones said. “I like to defend and win balls.”

With the Steel this year, Jones has been successful on 12 of his 15 attempted tackles while winning 58.8% of his duels and 66.7% of his aerials. In 2017 with the Steel, those numbers were 51.7 % and 38.5%, respectively, showing an improved aggression.

With that aggression Jones has also learned discipline, a costly issue last season highlighted by a red card that led to Philadelphia’s elimination from the 2017 U.S. Open Cup. He has yet to receive a card of any color in six matches with the Steel.

While possession was never his strongest attribute, Jones has taken great strides this season. In 2016, his repertoire generally consisted of one cutback or a change of direction touch, and little more. Now, he more often controls multiple touches under pressure from multiple defenders and will go one-on-one with a single defender more often. He has also attempted over 16 more passes per 90 minutes than he did in 2017.

This isn’t to say he is a finished product. His distribution still needs polishing. Curtin also addressed another one of the areas Jones needs to improve. “We’re still working with him a lot on changing speeds in midfield. Sometimes you watch, whether it’s a Steel game or even with us at times, it’s almost at one pace.”

But it’s clear the Union and their coach have confidence in Jones going forward.

“Derrick is a guy, you talk about the tools, and you talk about the frame of 6-3, strong, with good soft feet, and can be that connector,” Curtin said.

Curtin couldn’t help but make the comparison to a player Jones started alongside in the U20 World Cup last year.

“If you look at him and Tyler Adams at New York Red Bulls, to compare the two, same age, similar skill sets. But when you watch –” Curtin drifted off and smiled before saying, “Derrick has that in him.”

“I think he’s going to be a great player.”

The only question now is when.

21 Comments

  1. Seriously, does anyone even care what Curtin thinks at this point? He as proven he is a dead coach walking. He hasn’t developed anyone in 4 years, we still look pathetic on offense, he says things that are stupid, and he is marching to his firing with exact same lineup and tactics every week.

    The sooner we get rid of him the sooner we can move on.

    • Spot on James. Imagine if Alberg was still with us playing as a forward. Or if this organization kept developing Wheeler and Hoppenot as they were forming chemisty together. But no, why keep developing players with chemistry or attributes needed to win games like Alberg as a striker. These were so clear it drives me crazy !

      • It’s because Curtin is a virus !!!! When things are looking good this man steps in with his ideas and spreads cancer throughout the organization. Remove him and we shall thrive.
        #DROPTHECURTIN

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    One wonders, after a really solid start to a career, accolades, and by all accounts widely considered stellar U20 World Cup —– just how close a player like Derrick Jones may have been to receiving legitimate offers abroad… how close the player may have been to actually making some money for the franchise- second division here, low first division there, loan to here-there.
    .
    ….but then he gets hurt (which we all know is death knell)… and is gone- relegated to USL anonymity and literally gets ZERO time with a by all accounts consistently SHITTY team claiming it gives a rip about youth and patience– yet I’m reading about how Jim thinks “he’s going to be a great player”….
    .
    ….meanwhile, Warren Creavalle is the first choice destroyer.
    .
    When exactly is Derrick Jones going to become a great player and if he’s not AT LEAST as reliable as WC by now, what are we doing at the training field?
    .
    None of us can speak to work ethic. It is the great unknown… but at 21 Derrick Jones isn’t the first choice 6 off the bench because we are making a Cup run with 2 wins this season and a 13% chance of actually qualifying for the playoffs already in May?
    .
    we are all Bill Murray…. and this our version of Groundhog’s Day.

    • Amen. And in the meantime, Red Bull sold its team captain, Dax McCarthy — arguably a better and more reliable player than either Bedoya or Medunjanin — to make room for a teen-aged Tyler Adams. Philly talks the talk and Red Bull walks the walk.

      • The Truth says:

        Ooof, last sentence is so true it hurts. Great point, Pete.

      • Not sure I agree with “Philly talks the talk and Red Bull walks the walk”.
        .
        Sure, Jones is behind some players now, but how many other teams had starting a back four with an average age under 21? Real got an opportunity with Fabinho out, struggled, so Gaddis was brought in. Trusty and Elliot have been good. R’Berry struggled to end last season then won his job again in the offseason and has been good. Fontana is playing a role. Burke has gotten chances, Epps has an appearance.
        .
        The Union said they wanted to be a club that gives young players a chance. I’d say they are.

      • Chad Boardman says:

        I’m with Pete. There is a distinct difference between NYRB and the U. NYRB sold Dax. They saw what they had and made a move to facilitate his play. That’s an active choice.
        Elliott started because of injuries. So did Real. Fontana started because Dockal was brought in too late. These are re-active choices.
        The closest thing to an active choice for the U would be not re-signing Gooch / bringing in another player to make room for Trusty.
        The difference is NYRB did something to facilitate youth. The U did nothing and facilitated youth. That’s a significant disparity.

      • CPfief, the Union’s young backline is not taking any veteran jobs. The Red Bulls have shown they are not at all afraid to ship vets to play youth. Curtin loves vets. Look how much he leaned on Onyewu. Only reason Real started is because Fabinho was hurt. The only time I can remember Curtin really giving a job to a rookie over a vet was Rosenberry over Gaddis.

        An argument could be made that Curtin is right in putting Jones down on the depth chart. But I think Curtin has lost a lot of credibility with fans and they don’t trust his judgment. I don’t. As Pachy eloquently wrote on this thread, you had a kid start games at the beginning of the season, get noticed for his play at the U21 World Cup, he gets a knock and is suddenly shipped to Bethlehem. It doesn’t add up. Particularly when you’re saying you want to develop young players.

      • I get the argument (and understand the credibility issues especially) but the Union made the conscious decision in the offseason to not sign veteran defenders to replace Gooch and Wijnaldum so in a way, the young guys did take veteran jobs. I think Trusty was the plan all along at LCB – he is naturally left footed, seasoned with the Steel, has been in the USYNT, etc. Yes, Real is behind Fabinho at LB. But once Fabi went down Curtin could have went right for Gaddis and played it safe. Instead he gave Real a shot until it was shown he wasn’t quite ready. Fontana has a legit role as backup CAM – he will get some starts here and there and some late game appearances. It’s not like these young players are not getting a chance to prove themselves. Elliot was never the plan last season but he took his opportunity.
        .
        Quite honestly, Jones is not Adams. Epps is not Ballou Tabla. Real is not Marco Farfan. And that is ok, they are still quality players and every players growth occurs on a different timescale. They can each grow into players much better then the ones I’m comparing them too above but right now, they are not on the type of level that is a lock MLS starter. Just the way I see it at least.

  3. The Truth says:

    Yes, simple answer. The Philadelphia Union have never known how to rotate squads and keep the lineup fresh. Any successful team uses ALL its pieces to succeed.

  4. Hmmm Curtin’s comments are BS in my opinion. The guy gets one red card and he’s shunned for the rest of 2017. Just stop. The union need a true D mid and they aren’t deploying that system ever under Curtin. So Curtin can say that Derrick is a great player , hes promising , great skill, blah blah blah. Because Curtin is estatic about Bedoya and Harris, Jones and Creavalle for that matter will never get the chance to provide stability in the midfield and help this team when it’s desperately needed, like right now. The only way for Jones to grow is to get him minutes. Yes, there are a lot of things that need improvement with jones, like his speed in transition, his passing , but overall his skill set surpasses a lot of players on this team and is unique. He needs to get minutes period. He will not get the valuable minutes needed for a player to grow. #DroptheCurtin

    • el Pachyderm says:

      This is where the USL argument comes in and there is an increasing body of evidence suggesting USL minutes do in fact favor transition to MLS for some players as opposed to having no bridge to the first team…
      .
      I do think there is value there. My thing is if a player displays competence at the MLS level. If a player then goes to the World Cup and is regarded as one of best players on the NT team, to what end does coming home and playing USL game after game have value.
      .
      This model employed by USA with its farm teams and minor leagues. If I’m an 18 year old kid I’m going to think long and hard about signing a contract to play in USL for what could be forever in a global market. Worst part is…Derrick Jones no longer has any leverage over his career. For all intent and purpose, best I understand it- he’s stuck.
      .
      IDK.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Look more closely at the players for whom USL minutes have created successful transitions to MLS, particularly at quantity minutes played.
        .
        Tyler Adams for Red Bulls got a full season of play with the USL team 29 appearances. Aaron Long for Red Bulls got two full seasons in USL, 27 appearances with Seattle 2 and 22 with Red Bulls 2.
        .
        Trusty got 44 games with the Steel, all starts.
        .
        Real got less than half that.
        .
        McKenzie has had even less. I have not done statistically valid research. I think though that there is an opportunity to learn from such.
        .
        Derrick Jones has appeared in three different positions for the Union. Center back way back when in Curtin’s first year during preseason in the very first scrimmage, and the in 2016 as the 8, where he was last season. This year he is a 6.
        .
        More significantly, there is one big deficit in the offensive side of his game, and the Union seem to hope that he can learn to correct it.
        .
        They could have rushed Trusty last year and tried to play the high back line. In my eyes, they said no, he needs another year in the minors for seasoning and played a different defensive system when Yaro got hurt and Gooch had to play.
        .
        Trusty still has plenty to learn, but he’s not lost the way Real and McKenzie have seemed in spots.
        .
        Fabinho was supposed to not have gotten hurt, as were Yaro and Marquez supposed to have not gotten hurt.
        .
        My thinking is that they are going to give the keys to the #6 spot to Jones next season, if he proves himself there with the needed improvement in USL.
        .
        As you yourself comment, El P., after the first Richmond game, a facet of his play is dominant in USL now, his control with the ball at his feet. But the FO is greedy and they want him to develop the full package.
        .
        I have seen one or two hints that the vision for the wider distributive role is coming along, but the execution has not.
        .
        Two years ago, Trusty was told he had to work on his long passing, he improved it and he is where he is now.
        .
        Jones has 27 more games with the Steel to learn it.
        .
        It may mean that James Chambers moves to a different role once he recovers from injury. If Chambers goes back to playing the 6, then pessimism about Jones becomes much more justified, IMO.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    Change the manager. Change the formation. Make use of the players you have and the players you want to cultivate and grow into starters, since we will NEVER EVER spend the money required to be truly competitive.

  6. If I hear Jim Curtin say, “He’s still a guy I’m very high on” one more time, I might scream.
    .
    He said that about Andrew Wenger for months and months.
    .
    WSSM
    .
    #TIMEFORTHECURTINCALL

  7. Looking at Curtin. I’m reminded of Blockbuster when Netflix started. He’s like “nobody does what Haris does as well as Haris” (I’m not directly knocking him but using as example) so nobody replaces him, like nobody replaces Sapong.
    The Blockbuster guys thought the same, “no way Netflix can beat us at VHS rentals”.
    Neither seems to recognize that that’s the point.
    Jones ain’t going to be Haris, but he shouldn’t have to be…we get to have both. Use their individual attributes to make both better, or against teams they will shine against, and the team will rise with them.
    Instead we’re heading to a John Oliver bit…the last team riding the VHS rental train, in Alaska. Haris will retire and we’re wondering how to fit Jones in…or worse, Jones leaves for little or no money and Warren steps back up to bat.

  8. For years I said that we have to give the coach the benefit of the doubt, because he sees these guys every day, and we’re just armchair coaches carping from the cheap seats.

    But the consistently horrendous results, underachievement, and inflexibility have reached the point now where, even for me, Curtin no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt.

    And Exhibit #1, for me, in this discussion, is not his opinion of Jones per se; it’s his opinion of Medunjanin. Let me tell you, last year I loved me some Haris Medunjanin. The guy was a wonderful deep playmaker, he ran our offense in the absence of a proper #10 who could do so, and as far as I was concerned he did it about as well as anyone could’ve reasonably done under the circumstances. This year he has been just terrible. The magnificent long passes to the front line are simply nowhere to be found. His defense continues to be mainly of the “finger” variety. He mainly drops between the center backs and pings it back and forth between them. I know this is at Curtin’s direction, but he seems unable to do anything more, despite having more capable wingers, a real #10, and a right back who likes to get up the pitch. Meanwhile he screws up the midfield spacing enough to let opponents rampage through routinely, putting our young CBs under enormous pressure. And at age 33, and never speedy to begin with, it’s not like he can help with recovery D.

    I think Medunjanin is currently the Great Black Hole on the Union XI. And if Curtin can’t see that enough to give someone else a start there — be it Derrick Jones or Warren Creavalle — then I can’t see why I should trust his opinion about Jones’ development.

    • To make matters worse, he kept on moving over into Fabi’s spot against CBus, leaving a void in front of the CB’s. I think Jim was trying to tactic, but it was utterly ineffective.

  9. Great article!

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