Commentary / Union

The five new Homegrowns

Photo Marjorie Elzey

What should we expect from the Philadelphia Union’s five newly promoted homegrown players who will join the first team in 2021?

Two generalities

The first characteristic of the group is that it is young. The oldest is 19.6 years old, and the two youngest are both 16.7. Only the oldest has already graduated high school, back in 2019. He completed a PG year last year. A second is an underage high school senior. The other three are all juniors.

A second point is that never is the short history of the organization’s systematic pursuit of elite youth player development has anyone stepped from the farm team into the first team lineup without a long period of improvement and adjustment. Cory Burke (not a homegrown), Auston Trusty, Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, Matt Real, and Anthony Fontana spent at least the better part of a full season practicing “up” but playing “down” before leaving farm-team game minutes behind. And only Burke, Trusty, Aaronson, and McKenzie have achieved status as regular starters.

2021’s five new risers will have to invest the same patient hard work improving in practice before they can hope for MLS regular season game minutes. 2020’s homegrowns, Cole Turner and Jack de Vries, are still in the middle of doing that. No one will become the league’s most valuable player their first season with the team, as baseball’s Fred Lynn did for the Boston Red Sox in 1974.

The individuals

Nathan Harriel is the oldest and the most physically mature. He is 19.6 years old, stands 5’11” and weighs 179 pounds. He already has the physical stature of an MLS player. He is a right back and will be third on the depth chart behind starter Ray Gaddis and proven backup Olivier Mbaizo. He has already begun learning to integrate himself into first-team patterns of offensive and defensive play, since he began practicing with the first team as soon as possible after Union II’s USL Championship season ended.

Jack McGLynn is next-oldest at 17.4 years, more than two years younger than Harriel.  Like the right back he stands 5’11” but weighs 39 pounds less at 140, so he does not have the physical stature of an MLS player, yet. He is a high school junior. In USLC he played all four midfield positions, and did so effectively against all sides including Pittsburgh. His most intriguing characteristic is the speed with which he both learned a new position and played it effectively, becoming a starter at defensive center mid by May when he called himself a defensively deficiant attacking center mid when he signed as a pro in March. He too began practicing with the first team as soon as possible after Union II’s season ended. But he suffered a dislocated knee in practice. Fortunately, the injury appears not to require surgical repair.

The next oldest of the group has the most recognizable name of the five, since he is Brenden Aaronson’s younger brother. Paxten Aaronson is 17.3 years old, stands 5’6”, weighs 136 pounds, and plays defense in the same fashion as Aaronson the elder. He did not have the same consistent impact on USLC matches that McGlynn did, in spite of his commendably relentless pursuit of offense. He is not ready to takeover his brother’s spot next year.

Ernst Tanner correctly emphasizes that Paxten has joined the first team a full year before Brenden did.  He also began to practice with the first team eventually, after Union II’s USLC season was over. Like McGlynn, Paxten Aaronson is a high school junior.

The final pair are the same age, 16.7 years old, but Quinn Sullivan has qualified to be a high school senior while Brandan Craig remains a junior.  Sullivan is a right midfielder while Craig is a defensive midfielder. Craig stands 6’0” tall and weighs 158 pounds, while Sullivan is 5’9” and 148. Craig dominated play against New York Red Bulls II and Loudon United, the MLS2 sides Union II played, but had less game-shaping impact against independent adult sides Pittsburgh and Hartford. That he was offered a first team opportunity surprised few.

That Sullivan was also so offered was not as obvious to outsiders.  Several of his USLC opportunities were cameos. His total minutes were roughly a fifth of Craig’s.  But he covers ground indefatigably and that gets Ernst Tanner’s attention.

None of the last four yet have the physical stature of MLS players.

Reasonable expectations

Barring  conventional or viral medical emergencies, none of the five should be expected to see meaningful MLS game minutes while the game is still in question.  Only Harriel has the physicality to stand up to an MLS match. Friendles, exhibitions, perhaps the Campeones Cup, or the U. S. Open Cup are better possibilities. They will get minutes in preseason as Turner and de Vries did last year, but those minutes will be as much to teach them how far they have to come as they will to prove readiness.

The Concacaf Champions League probably is not a game-minutes opportunity for them, given its timing.

Depending on how the Union II’s venue for competition shapes up for next season, the five may see lots of game time there along with de Vries and Turner, once virus immunization allows the resumption of regular mobility between teams. Harriel is perhaps close to graduating from second-team minutes but McGlynn, Aaronson, Craig and particularly Sullivan definitely are not.

These investments will not reach maturity in MLS in 2021.

2 Comments

  1. As always, thank you for the valued insight. It tamps down the runaway enthusiasm we have seen for the homegrowns (which sounds like the name of the next PSP band).

  2. OneManWolfpack says:

    Appreciate the article. Was kind of hoping to read what I read, meaning they’re gonna give them all the time they need to develop take it step by step. No pressure. No wishful thinking. Just take a smart, pragmatic, “German” approach to the whole thing. IMO… If two work out, you sell/trade two, and one doesn’t, that a great return. Good stuff.

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