Stock rising, stock falling: Suncoast Invitational edition

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Philadelphia Union played their final preseason match against MLS competition Wednesday, thrashing Montreal Impact 5-0.It was a dominant performance, albeit against a side comprised primarily of reserves.

The result came on the heels of last Saturday’s 2-1 loss against D.C. United, which kicked off the Suncoast Invitational tournament in Tampa, Fl.  The Union dictated play for the final 70 minutes, but a poor opening to the game and an egregious mistake in the final minute cancelled out Philadelphia’s effort and forward Cory Burke’s late equalizer.

The Suncoast Invitational generally offers a more competitive tune-up compared to the exhibition games that come earlier in the preseason, which often play out as glorified scrimmages. Thus, the tournament offers a clearer view of what to expect when the real season kicks off.

The Union still have one game left against the USL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies on Saturday, but it’s likely to be less indicative of Mar. 3, especially considering the lengthy run of play many projected starters received Wednesday evening.

So after the games against D.C. and Montreal, which players helped themselves? Who slid further down the depth chart?


Auston Trusty

Union head coach had a tough question to answer this preseason. Out of five promising candidates, Curtin had to decide on two starting center backs. Rookie of the year finalist Jack Elliott is a lock to man one spot. Veteran Richie Marquez, former 2nd overall MLS Superdraft selection Joshua Yaro, and homegrown signing Mark McKenzie tried to claim the position. Instead, Philadelphia’s other homegrown center back, Auston Trusty, seized the opportunity.

The 6-3 19-year-old looks like a natural on the back line, calm and collected while defending. Against Montreal, he showed how dangerous he can be on set pieces. Trusty headed home one goal and slammed a contorted half-volley off the crossbar. What really stood out, though, was the quality of distribution he displayed from deep. His passing had verve, launching Union attacks. Trusty gives Curtin something he’s sought for a while: a left footed center back, capable of forming a dynamic partnership with Elliott.

Keegan Rosenberry

After a dream rookie season, 2017 was a nightmare for right back Keegan Rosenberry. Often the Pennsylvania native looked lost last season, caught between two minds. There was a level of indecision to his game, not recognizing when to attack and when to defend. It led to a seat on the bench, with Raymon Gaddis taking over as the starter.

Something looks to have returned to Rosenberry’s game this year — conviction. Every decision he’s made this preseason has been authoritative. Against D.C. United, it seemed every offensive movement went through Rosenberry’s feet. The inverse was true against Montreal. As the Union attacks stemmed from the left flank, Rosenberry did well to recognize his defensive responsibility. The performances were likely enough to win back his starting spot.

Cory Burke

Burke was signed from Bethlehem Steel to provide depth at the forward position. The 26-year-old was never going to challenge C.J. Sapong for the starting job, but there was no guarantee he would legitimately challenge English forward Jay Simpson for the backup position either.

Burke’s play has forced a competition. The Jamaican international just keeps banging in goals. Against D.C., his late equalizer gave Philadelphia hope. It was another tally on top of those scored in the first round of preseason contests. Because of his time with the club and bloated salary, Simpson still has the inside track. He also scored against Montreal with his first touch. Burke is nipping at his heels.


Fabian Herbers

Injuries derailed midfielder Fabian Herbers in 2017. This year, there is more competition for playing time than in previous seasons. The addition of winger David Accam gave Curtin a name he can pencil in every week. Fafa Picault, after scoring seven goals in his first season with the club, is the other likely starter on the wing. It leaves Herbers battling Marcus Epps, the currently injured Ilsinho, and Eric Ayuk for playing time off the bench. The German attacking player struggled to make an impact this preseason, and Curtin noted that he can no longer be considered a young player. Epps, on the other hand, has shined in the exhibition games.

The back line “veterans”

Gaddis and Marquez, at the ripe old ages of 28 and 25, are the grizzled vets that have been consistent fixtures in Curtin’s defense for years. The play of Rosenberry and Trusty, however, indicates their time as starters might be coming to an end.

Against D.C. United, the Marquez and Gaddis’ own mistakes did just as much damage. First, Gaddis was beaten at the far post resulting in D.C.’s first goal. Then, after the Union had fought back for a likely draw, Marquez gifted United the win. It was a mistake you would have expected the 19-year-old to make.

The young No. 10s

Curtin made a big announcement in his teleconference this week. Anthony Fontana will be the No. 10 for the season opener. So why is an 18-year-old’s stock down after he just won a starting job? Why isn’t it just the 23-year-old Fontana beat out for the job, Adam Najem? It’s because Curtin also confirmed the Union were in contract negotiations with Borek Dockal, the designated player-quality No. 10 the team needs. Fontana can be a great player, but he isn’t one yet.


  1. Wish there was some comment on LB. I’ve liked Fabi’s high risk high reward play but I’m certainly intrigued by Real’s capability. Fabi as a LW sub is something I think most people have thought about. My fingers are crossed we’ll see sometime that youthful backline of Real, Trusty, Elliot, Rosenberry. That’s when I’ll know The Process is not for naught.

    • Based on what I saw and read from the preseason, I think Real will be in the starting lineup at some point this season. But Fabinho didn’t give his spot away, and that was enough to start the season there.
      Plus, having a backline where your oldest guy is 22 (I think?) is a little scary sometimes. In a couple of months, they won’t have a problem with it.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Rosenberry is 24, I think.
        Elliott 22, Trusty 19, Real 18, McKenzie 18,
        and Derrick Jones will turn 21 on Opening Day against the Revs.
        Add in Fontana who is 18.

    • Nick Fishman says:

      I was tempted to put both Fabi and Real in a combined “risers” spot, but they cancelled each other out

      Fabi played really, really well in the two games. Especially in the Mon. game where he played almost as a wing back, with Medunjanin often dropping between Elliott and Trusty.

      Real is very promising, but it isn’t his time quite yet.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Real is a Fabinho hamstring injury away from starting.
        Oh, right, they have a meaningless exhibition game in which risking a 33 year-old hamstring would be dumb, stupid and foolish!
        Real played against Tampa Bay Rowdies last season, twice.
        Matt Real’s time is very likely now, temporarily.

    • The Truth is speaking the truth. the excitement over Dockal is masking it.
      There are five non-Academy left backs in the organization’s two training camps as of today. They are: Fabinho, Matt Real, Olivier Mbaizo, Prosper Chiluya, and the Steel trialist who has been here since the official opening of the Steel’s training camp whom I will call Trialist for these purposes.
      Fabinho has a hamstring injury that Jim Curtin described as minor in Thursday’s conference call.
      Real as Curtin described has been dealing with an ankle. The previous week he said that Real had practiced 4 times in Florida, which is why Nick Fishman thinks his time with the Union is not yet, in part.
      Mbaizo went off in the Orlando closed door scrimmage and has not been heard from or seen since, suggesting he is not currently available. Curtin mentioned him a week ago, no one asked yesterday. Mysterious. And a touch ominous for a yorung man who speaks no English and is several thousand miles from home. He is rostered to the Steel but has never practiced with them to the best of my understanding.
      Chiluya is a wiry 19 year-old who arrived in this country a week ago today. He is on loan to the Steel. He speaks English well, but it is still a long way from home in Zambia, and there are no other Zambians in USL.
      Trialist has been present with the Steel since January 30th, the first day of actual practice since Steel physicals were done on the 29th up in the Lehigh Valley by the Lehigh Valley Health Network (see logo on front of the Steel’s uniform kit). He is about to complete his 4th week of trialing which is not usual organization practice.
      Chiluya and Trialist are the only left backs whose health can currently be considered “rock solid.”
      And the top academy candidate would be an intelligent, able flank mid who has been playing there out of position a la Dawson McCartney from last season.

  2. Fontana has to be considered a riser IMO.
    Not only does it seem like he won his depth chart battle over the older Najem but he did so after seeing limited time with Steel last year due to, what we now know, was two femur fractures. Even if/when Dockal is signed, he positioned himself to see a lot more first team time then would have been expected a few weeks ago.

    • I agree. Fontana was never expected to beat out the “difference maker #10”. If he beat out the current players ilshino and Najem that is a win for him.

    • Nick Fishman says:

      It was a tough call, but I think Fontana plays a lot more with the Steel IF the Union sign Dockal. He needs as many minutes as he can get.

      The reason I put him there: even though he’s going to be the starter, Philly’s attack really bypassed Fontana. The CBs and Medunjanin somewhat ignored him in the build-up, instead playing through the FBs and the front three.

      Maybe because he doesn’t have that chemistry yet. Maybe it’s because he was a little slow with his decision making (both will improve with experience.)

      • Nick Fishman says:

        Either way, everyone should be excited about his future.

      • Watching a few games he played with the academy he always played more of an attacking 8, never really the 10. After watching the two preseason games, it looked like they are relying on him defensively to help out Ale and Harris. He seemed to play deeper than a 10. No doubt the playing time will further his development immensely. Excited to see where he plays in the future.

    • Fontana is a riser, but starting him strikes me as as a questionable move. He didn’t produce in USL. He should prove he can do it there first. That’s why you have the club.

      Now, you don’t get to evaluate Najem (who DID produce in USL) in extended minutes, so he’s basically going to be a wasted roster spot this year. Fontana is going to get just enough of a taste of MLS to either whet his appetite for more (which would be good) or thoroughly discourage him and break his confidence when he’s outmatched by MLS players.

      It strikes me that a half/full season in Bethlehem was the best route for Fontana, while they give Najem a chance to show what he’s got in legitimate MLS minutes until Dockal got into the swing of things. Najem is likely going to leave the Union having never seen a good stretch of extended minutes. But hey, if they don’t rate him, they don’t rate him.

      • Fair, but now we know Fontana had two injuries last year so his playing time and lack of production may be, at least in some part, due to that.
        But like you said, it all comes down to how the coaching staff rates them. They are the ones working with the players every day after all.

      • True. Injuries definitely hurt him. (I actually did factor that in to my thinking, although I never wrote it. We knew about the injuries at PSP but didn’t have on-record confirmation.)

    • In full and complete fairness to CPfeif, he has not been able to hear Steel head coach Brendan Burke talk about Fontana to the same degree as me. Nor has he heard the young man’s high school principal discuss him.
      That Fontana has thrust himself into the mix is not a real surprise to me. He has not been a standout difference maker. But he has been fearless. His first USL minutes were away to Cincinnati. Nippert Stadium was well populated and Cincy was a strong team under John Harkes, as it has been since.
      Fontana and Najem will make each other better, the way She Conneh — now in South Korea — and Cory Burke did last year for the Steel.

  3. I think we are going to be seeing a lot of long over-balls this season – which is not necessarily a bad thing. Between Elliot, Medunjanin and now Trusty, it looks like we’re going to have some nice distribution out of the back.
    I’m also looking forward to seeing more Burke as the back-up striker. He’s been fairly dynamic. Simpson was lucky not to bungle his goal against Montreal (which was all Epps anyway).

  4. Good assessment of the pre-season games but it always seems that Curtin sets the line-up based on his view of how players are performing in practice, not by how they have performed where the public can see them.

    • Thinking about the internal dynamics of managing a team and keeping it united helps understand that policy.
      Remember what Buddy Ryan told the Eagles during the strike year.

  5. Comment about stock rising, then a question about homegrowns:

    For me, Fontana, and even more so, Epps would be rising. Both seem to have made a good case as first choice backups against more likely and more experienced competition. That’s a promising rise for them, with Epps in a crowded position and Fontana so young.

    RE: the “youth movement,” what do you guys think?.. There is a lot that needs to play out, but I’m very encouraged by what we’re seeing from all the homegrowns this preseason. To me, there’s a lot to be said about the difference between bringing in rookies from the draft vs. young players from the academy. The learning curve is steep, but these first-time homegrowns have the benefit of coming through an academy that instills a professional culture / work ethic, and grooms them within the overall system and playing style that the organization wants to achieve. This to me could be one reason we see Fontana beating out Najem—he’s grown up in this system from the younger teams upward, whereas Najem has come in and had to adapt in the past year. You’d have to think this homegrown class (and future) has stronger odds of contributing more, sooner, than kids coming in from the draft or elsewhere. Is this reasoning fair?

    Again, though much is to be proven, I’m pleased with what we’re seeing, it gives a new element of excitement to an otherwise *potentially, pending* disappointing offseason. It makes me excited for this whole process as the years continue.

    I just hope this 10 works out. #SignTheCzech
    If the ten works out…things *look* pretty nice.

  6. # sign the ” check/ CZECH “

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