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Jones signing ushers in new era for Union Academy

Derrick Jones Amaniampong became the first player signed to Bethlehem Steel FC, ushering in a new era for the Philadelphia Union's youth system.

The long-awaited signing of a player from Philadelphia Union's ballyhooed Academy came this week with the announcement that U18 midfielder Derrick Jones Amaniampong is the first signing for the Union's new USL franchise.

Amaniampong is cited as the first to sign a pro contract from the Academy, but he's not the first to suit up for a Union youth team in the past and sign a contract.

First-team homegrown signings Zach Pfeffer and Jimmy McLaughlin both have that distinction. Other players with experience in the Union's youth system include 2012 homegrown signing Cristhian Hernandez (cut by the Union before last season and now playing for New York Cosmos B in the NPSL), SC Freiburg goalkeeper Zack Steffen, and Arizona United SC midfielder Alex Shinsky. Two prominent European youth players in West Brom defender Daniel Barbir and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Christian Pulisic both trained with the U14 team in 2012-13.

There's also Neicko Williams, who played for the Union Academy in their first season in the U.S. Development Academy in 2013-14 and plays in his native Jamaica for Waterhouse FC.

Jones Amaniampong joined the Union Academy U18 team last season after playing for local club Junior Lone Star and catching the eye of the Union staff during a friendly against the U18 team. Over two seasons, he's scored 11 goals in 34 matches for the U18 team, playing in an attacking role last year before shifting to a more defensive role for the team this season.

The 18-year-old who moved to the U.S. from Ghana four years ago is often the most skilled player on the field no matter what position he's playing in for the Union. Filling in at center back for a match earlier this season against PA Classics, Jones used his height and strength to fight off the PA Classics attackers and paired well with Lamine Conte to hold a clean sheet.

In a recent game against local rivals Continental FC DELCO he showed his skill on the other side of the field, pushing forward from a holding position to help overcome a late 1-0 deficit and earn a draw.

Last season, he combined well with Maryland freshman forward Sebastian Elney in more of an attacking role to lead the team with eight goals. He's been a regular at training with the first team, and when he opted not to make good on a previous verbal commitment to play college soccer at Rhode Island it was clear his next step would be at the professional level.

His signing to Bethlehem Steel FC will be the first of many from the Academy as the path from the youth system to the first team is made even clearer now with the Union-owned USL team part of the picture.

Jones could have up to five Academy teammates in the squad come spring since USL roster roles allow five amateur players on the team. Derrick Etienne did this with great success for New York Red Bulls II before heading to Virginia so a similar opportunity could await players like Raheem Taylor-Parkes and Jerren Nixon, both committed to Virginia and fellow D1 prospects like Auston Trusty (North Carolina), Joseph DeZart (Wake Forest) and Michael Swift (Clemson).

There's also current college standouts to consider like the aforementioned Elney, North Carolina midfielder Sean Wilson and Villanova midfielder Zach Zandi, who could spend the summer playing for the Union's PDL affiliate in Reading before either returning to college or signing with Bethlehem Steel.

Whichever player is next, it's starting to feel like the plan fans have been pitched for years now is finally starting to come together. This March, after all, will mark four years since the last player from the Union's youth system was signed to a first-team contract.