One of the feel-good stories from the early days of the Philadelphia Union youth development system was when then 17-year-old Cristhian Hernandez scoring the game-winning goal in a friendly against Premier League club Everton FC on July 20, 2011.
As it turns out this moment, like so many others revealed in court documents from a legal case with former Union boss Piotr Nowak, was all a lie.
As an unsigned amateur player, Hernandez's appearance in the game was a violation of league rules.
Perhaps because of the goal, the league found out about Hernandez playing and the very next day league executive Todd Durbin sent an email to all coaches and technical directors with a reminder that "all Trialist and Academy Players are not allowed to participate in gated exhibition games," according to the court documents made available to the public on Wednesday.
It wasn't the first time that an unsigned player had appeared for the Union in a friendly, and it wouldn't be the last under Nowak's watch.
Zach Pfeffer played in a friendly against Chivas Guadalajara on September 1, 2010 prior to signing a Homegrown contract with the team on December 22, 2010. And Jimmy McLaughlin played in a friendly against PDL affiliate Reading United AC on May 31, 2011 (McLaughlin signed a Homegrown contract on December 12, 2011).
McLaughlin played the part of Nowak pawn again when he checked into a friendly with Real Madrid on July 23, 2011 in the 82nd minute. The decision to play McLaughlin after receiving the league memo "caused a lot of angst around the League," according to court documents.
But Nowak wasn't done with the practice.
In an August 24, 2011 friendly with Harrisburg City Islanders, Nowak played 21-year-old Englishman Joe Tait. Like Hernandez, the fact that Tait scored a goal in the 78th minute and was mentioned in the game report as a trialist was hard for the league to ignore.
According to the court documents, Nowak spoke with Durbin about the violation and "informed Mr. Durbin that he disagreed with the rule and would do it again." As a result, MLS Commissioner Don Garber fined the club $25,000, a figure that was later reduced to $15,000 through negotiations with the league.
The practice appears to have stopped after that and by March 2012 all three Academy players - Pfeffer, McLaughlin and Hernandez - had been signed to Homegrown contracts.
For Hernandez, the goal against Everton would represent the high-water mark of his success with the club. He was released prior to the 2015 season and was last listed as a member of the New York Cosmos B team in the NPSL. McLaughlin has played sparingly and Pfeffer has yet to make good on the promise he showed as 15-year-old. Joe Tait was last seen playing eighth division football in England.
The Union now have plenty of opportunities to give promising Academy players minutes, from the U18, U16 and U14 teams they've had competing in the U.S. Development Academy since 2013-14 to the newly formed USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC, which allows for up to five amateur spots for Academy players on its roster. But trialists and unpaid Academy players are still unable to play for the first team, as it violates the MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Player's Union.