Analysis / Feature / Opinion / Union Academy

The current state of Philadelphia Union’s homegrown players

Photo: 215Pix

Last month the Philadelphia Union traded the oldest homegrown on the roster, Derrick Jones, to Nashville SC for $175,000. While the move was a surprise, it was the correct choice to make for both club and player. For the Union, if someone offers $175,000 for a guy who’s played 57 MLS minutes this season, you take it. For Jones, it’s a chance at a fresh start and more playing time, something he was seeing less and less of here ( 702 MLS minutes in 2017, 385 in 2018 and 57 in 2019). But with Jones now gone, where does that leave the rest of the homegrowns, and who’s next on the chopping block? Which academy players will be the next to sign for the first team? For the current homegrowns there are basically 2 categories, the Starters and then Reserves/Steel players. We’ll start by taking a look at the Starters.


The starters are the guys who should be on the field for the Union each and every week, or at least included in the 18. This season has been pretty clear which guys make up this group, with 2 homegrowns starting almost every match.

Auston Trusty (2nd MLS Season, 20 years old) 

Every match, Trusty is almost guaranteed to be in the starting 11; he’s missed only one game due to red card suspension this season. After playing all 34 games in 2017, Trusty has suited up for 14 out of the team’s 15 matches and all 14 have been starts. His strengths are definitely his speed—he is surprisingly quick for being 6’3″—and his tackling, which he leads MLS in with 24 tackles. Where he struggles is with physicality: he gets beaten in the air and pushed off the ball far too often for a guy his size. Another area where Trusty could improve is his passing: instead of hitting long balls to a target man, he could play more balls through the line to use the Union’s midfield speed. So far, Trusty has shown that he is a capable starting MLS centerback, but the question is how high is his ceiling?

Brenden Aaronson (1st MLS Season, 18 years old) 

Aaronson started the season on the bench, then came into the starting lineup due to a Marco Fabian red card. He’s played in 13 of the team’s 15 matches, with 11 starts. While most of his starts have been due to a suspended or injured Fabian, Aaronson is still getting minutes, as he came on as a sub in the May 29 draw against Colorado. As a playmaker his strength is his passing ability and finding the final pass, but his pressing and defensive work rate also stand out. Given that this season is his first, he has plenty to work on, but his lack of a finishing touch is his most glaring deficit. This season, Aaronson has taken 22 shots, but only 4 of those have been on target, producing 1 goal. His strength on the ball is also a concern, but as an 18-year-old that is expected, and he has plenty of time to work on it. With a season or 2 of more experience, Aaronson could very well be the first Union homegrown to move to Europe.

Mark McKenzie (2nd MLS Season, 19 years old)

Its been a rough season for McKenzie. He had a brief cameo of 12 mins against the Galaxy, his only appearance of the season. He was set to start the match against Montreal the week after but couldn’t go after suffering appendicitis, which has kept him out of the 18 since. The good news is that it seems he is getting close to being ready for the Union.  At the U-20 World Cup, where he is captain of the US team, he came on for the injured Chris Richards against Nigeria and started (at right back) against Qatar. Based on his performance last season, McKenzie is very quick and a great passer. He lacks some physicality like Trusty, but that may be due to his size at 5’11”. McKenzie is also in the running to be the first Union homegrown to be Europe bound.

Reserves/Steel Players

Matt Freese (1st MLS Season, 20 years old) 

It’s difficult to determine which group Freese belongs to. He was on the bench for the Montreal game, so Carlos Miguel Coronel could play for Steel. When Andre Blake was injured, Freese made an unexpected debut. He then started at Vancouver, where he played well, and against Cincinnati, where he was injured making a great save. He’s played in 3 matches and started 2, but only once played a full 90 minutes. He’s also started 3 matches for Steel, going the distance in those matches. His strengths seem to be distribution, as well as the ability to come off his line quickly and bravely. He seems to be weak on corners and positioning, which can be easily corrected with more experience. It will be interesting to see where Freese is on the depth chart once he returns to match fitness.

Anthony Fontana (2nd MLS Season, 19 years old)

Anthony Fontana started his career off with a bang, scoring in his first career start against the Revs in 2018. This season has been primarily spent with Steel for Fontana, with a brief cameo for the Union, playing 9 minutes against Columbus. For the Steel, Fontana has started 7 matches and played 565 minutes. Fontana’s style is reminiscent of Union captain Alejandro Bedoya: he does a lot of dirty work. His work rate and defensive ablity stand out for an attacking minded midfielder. Fontana’s eventual role with the Union seems like it might be to take over for either Haris Medunjanin or Bedoya. He would also be a natural fit for the top part of the Union’s midfield diamond.

Matt Real (2nd MLS Season, 19 years old)

Another member of the U-20 National Team currently at the U-20 World Cup, Matt Real is the only homegrown to not appear for the Union this season. After starting 3 games last season, Real hasn’t been able to get back into the lineup, give that he did struggle in those 3 appearances. It was especially concerning that Real wasn’t chosen to fill in for Kai Wagner during his 2 game suspension: the Union opted to move Ray Gaddis to the left and slot Oliver Mbazio on the right. For the Steel, Real has started 8 matches and has played the whole 90 in almost all of them. He likely has 1 to 2 more years to prove he is the left back of the future, especially with an aging Gaddis, but Real is also a likely candidate for a move elsewhere.

Who’s next

Jack De Vries (17 years old)

De Vries was called up to the U-17 USMNT for the U-17 CONCACAF Championships and has appeared in 3 matches for the Steel, starting 2 and playing 120 minutes this season. As an attacking midfielder/attacker, he’s a surprisingly strong tackler but needs to work on his ability in the air as well as his passing. He has only only a 63% success rate in passing this season. Interestingly, De Vries holds a Dutch Passport, meaning he could move to a European academy and would have the easiest time moving to Europe in the future.

Issa Rayyan (18 years old)

Rayyan, a Union academy graduate, was the ACC Freshmen of the Year at Duke before signing with the Steel. He’s appeared 8 times for the Steel, with 7 starts and 577 minutes. He’s played some right back but right midfield is his natural position. Rayyan is very good at taking defenders one-on-one as well as passing, with a 75% success rate this season. A Union comparison to Rayyan would be Fafa Picault, but a bit slower. However, a Rayyan  contract with the Union is not expected in the near future.


  1. Love these kinds of updates, great work and keep em coming.

  2. Nice little look at the present and future, and I’m glad we’ve gotten more reasonable in our discussions and assessments of the prospects of any young Union player who shows a modicum of potential. If this were just a handful of years ago, there’d already be a poll on the Union site asking what the over/under was on Brendan Aaronson USMNT call-ups.

    We’ve come a long way since immediately wondering how many games Danny Mwanga would play with the Union before getting scooped up by the Premier League.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    While I’m hoping they won’t be available for the June 12 Open Cup game, if the US loses to France tomorrow, I’m curious as to how Real and McKenzie look in that game after their time in Poland.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    Real and Fontana are in trouble IMO.
    Next stop USL… and the hinterlands of US Soccer.. where the college route might have been best cause $45,000 a year is the likely ceiling… in a system carefully designed to trap an individual inside competing leagues instead of competing teams within a functioning pyramid.
    wait- did the elephant go there? Again?

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