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Season review: The “Play Your Kids” movement

Photo: Paul Rudderow

The Philadelphia Union are quickly becoming known as a club where young players will be given opportunities, especially with the recent USMNT call-ups for Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie.

While it’s nice to see Union Homegrowns shining on the national stage, most of the club’s other Homegrowns (and players like them) have failed to push into the first team for the past two seasons. For every Brenden Aaronson, there are twice as many Anthony Fontanas and Matt Reals, and good role players can be just as important as star players.

Have the Union really earned the title of a develop and sell (eventually) club? Let’s take a look.

Philadelphia Union 
Brenden Aaronson: (GP: 28 (25 starts), 3 goals, 2 assists: 19 years old)

In his first career season, the “Medford Messi” exceeded all expectations, beating out El Tri star Marco Fabian at the No. 10 role for most of the season. By now every Union fan, and MLS fan, knows what Aaronson is capable of: his ability to link passes in the midfield and recover defensively are outstanding for an 18-year-old, and he really should have more than just two assists this year. He consistently finds himself in good spots on the attack, but can’t seem to finish his chances, he took 34 shots this year and only nine were on target. Another department in which he struggles is physicality, which can be expected from a teenager playing against guys in their 20s and 30s, but that will improve with age. Aaronson probably has the highest ceiling of any of the Union’s current Homegrowns, but I think the rumors of a loan deal aren’t for Aaronson, one more season of experience and clubs will start calling.

Mark McKenzie: (GP: 7 (6 starts), 0 goals, 0 assists: 20 years old) 

Mark McKenzie looked set for a classic Philadelphia Union “sophomore slump,” sitting behind Auston Trusty and Jack Elliott most of the season on top of a bout of appendicitis. McKenzie was able to break through toward the end of the season, and earned his way to a post season USMNT call. In his first postseason appearance, McKenzie didn’t look overwhelmed, though he did have some communication issues with goalkeeper Andre Blake. McKenzie also doesn’t seem fit for a loan move either, needing a full season of starts before attracting serious interest.

Auston Trusty: (GP: 22 (22 starts), 1 goal, 0 assists: 21 years old)

Auston Trusty was the Homegrown who suffered from the sophomore slump this year, sometimes receiving more blame than he was owed throughout the season. Trusty was integral to the Union’s strong first half of the season, but was then dropped to the bench after two 4-0 defeats, and then dropped out of the 18 all together. Nobody is really sure what happened to Trusty, but he’s made it clear he wants to prove himself this upcoming offseason and is frustrated with the way his season ended. Speaking of loan moves, it could be coming for Trusty, who even mentions other teams in the above story. It will be hard to imagine Trusty not being in the Union squad next year though, an injury to Elliott or McKenzie and all you have is Aurelien Collin (who is not certain to return).

Anthony Fontana: (GP: 8 (0 starts), 1 goal, 1 assist: 20 years old)

For me, Anthony Fontana feels like Derrick Jones 2.0. In his limited minutes with the club, he has been impressive, securing a goal and an assist in just 119 minutes of MLS play. The good news for Fontana is the Union midfield isn’t getting any younger, and there is likely a Jamiro Monteiro-sized hole to fill this offseason. This is a big offseason for Fontana, one that will likely seal his future with the Union or see him depart. He has also not featured for the Steel in some time, which I think says more about how Ernst Tanner feels about the USL then it says about Fontana’s ability. Tanner knows what he has with Fontana, so why not give other players a shot in Bethlehem?

Matt Real: ( GP 3 (1 start), 0 goals, 1 assist: 20 years old)

Remember when Matt Real came into the Orlando City game and helped set up Kacper Przybylko’s equalizer? Those were the last meaningful minutes Real had this year. His one start came in Montreal, where he stepped in for the suspended Kai Wagner. It was interesting to see Real used as an attacking sub more, coming in when the Union were looking for goals. Another big step in Real’s development that went largely unnoticed is that he was on the bench for both playoff games, an encouraging sign that he is taking the right steps. Like Fontana, he didn’t feature much for Bethlehem later in the season. I think Real stays with Union as insurance for a possible Kai Wagner move and as a backup left back (with Fabinho’s playing career firmly at an end).

Matt Freese: (GP: 6 (5 starts), 13 saves, 7 goals allowed: 21 years old) 

It’s evident that Andre Blake needs some competition, and I think people forgot how good Matt Freese was during Blake’s injury. He came in during the Montreal game, solely because Carlos Miguel Coronel was playing for Steel that night. He then beat out Coronel for the start at Vancouver and home against Cincinnati, where he got injured. He also made three consecutive starts in June while Blake was away on international duty. If Freese can stay healthy, he should be the Union’s second goalkeeper next season.

Bethlehem Steel
Cole Turner: (GP: 25, 0 goals, 2 assists: 18 years old)

One of the newest Union Homegrowns, Cole Turner was the only one to feature for Bethlehem later in the season, mostly featuring as a central defensive midfielder and a center back. Turner was never in contention for first team minutes this year, as he was signed in the summer. Most of the year was trying to find his ideal position, in his first matches with Steel he lined up in midfield, where he notched his two assists. He is good at linking passes together and staying in defensive shape, but he did pick up eight yellow cards in the USL, a sign that he’s still adapting to the pace of the game. Expect another season of experience with the Steel for Turner next season.

Jack De Vries: (GP: 3, 0 goals, 0 assists: 17 years old) 

The youngest and newest Union Homegrown, Jack De Vries didn’t see much action in the USL this year. Much like Turner, the club is still trying to figure his best position; he featured as a forward and attacker for the Academy but is listed as a midfielder for the Steel. He only appeared in three matches, for a total of 119 minutes. Next season will be spent with the Steel most likely, and will serve as a good opportunity for De Vries to showcase his skills.

Michee Ngalina: (GP: 22, 6 goals, 2 assists: 20 years old)

Technically not a Homegrown, I feel like most people forget that Michee Ngalina is signed to a Union first-team contract when discussing the team’s forward depth. Ngalina had an open and down year dealing with some injuries, but he was able to notch six goals this year for the Steel, along with two assists. Michee is technically gifted and very quick — his play reminds me of a less physical Sergio Santos. Expect Ngalina to start in Union Open Cup matches, but stay with Steel for the next year.

Olivier Mbaizo: (GP: 9, 1 goal, 0 assists: 22 years old)

Also not a Homegrown, but the man who was supposed to replace Ray Gaddis still hasn’t been able to do it. Mbaizo did have a knee injury that kept him out of some Steel matches earlier in the year, he appeared in nine games and scored 1 goal (a penalty). He likes to get up into the attack and has the speed to get back, trending more towards the style the Union want from their fullbacks. He did appear in three matches for the Union this season, but still didn’t do enough to take the starting role, or even a spot on the bench. He is currently with the Cameroon U-23 National team for the African Cup of Nations. This offseason may be the last chance Mbazio has to prove that he has what it takes to be the Union’s right back of the future.

This will be a big offseason for many of the Union Homegrowns. With McKenzie, Trusty, Real and Fontana all entering team options and final years of their contracts this offseason, this will be the last time we will see some of the players in a Union shirt. The Union proved they can develop players, now can they keep and sell them for a profit?

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