Remember when U.S. Men’s National team supporters were calling for former head coach (yes, that still feels good to say) Jurgen Klinsmann to cap-tie Tony Tchani? It seems like forever ago at this point, but in reality, its been over the course of the last 12 months.
Supporters were drooling over his ability to get from box to box with his 6-foot-4 frame, pass and combine with the likes of Wil Trapp and Federico Higuain, and even score the occasional goal, and rightfully so. Those types of players are few and far between. While we are all still years from seeing the final product, there is reason to believe that the Union may have, at the very least, the next best thing.
Derrick Jones, who came to Philadelphia from Ghana just four years ago, became the very first signing for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC and eventually signed a Homegrown deal with the Union in July. Jones was a bright spot for the Steel in its inaugural season, scoring five goals and serving up three assists in 26 matches. At 6-foot-3 and 165 pounds, the reasoning behind the Tchani comparison is obvious, but it doesn’t stop there.
Jones has shown the tenacity and physicality to be a ball-winner at any level, break up plays from a deeper-lying midfield position, and cover loads of ground. The 19-year old has far more pace than Tchani allowing him to wreak more havoc in closing down space, winning 50/50 balls and making recovery runs. However, Jones tends to struggle a bit more with the ball at his feet.
While his athleticism and power stood out at the USL level, if not improved, his inability to play in tight spaces could significantly hurt his chances at a successful MLS career. Despite his glaring weakness as a technical player, he is still just 19. If Jim Curtin, Mike Sorber and company can develop his touch to even the point of an average MLS player, his raw talent will do the rest.
The Union were historically poor after the calming presence of Vincent Nogueira left the club. Earnie Stewart tried to replace the Frenchman by signing the ever-so-steady Alejandro Bedoya. While Bedoya was a significant improvement over any of the alternatives that the blue-and-gold had on the roster, the team never returned to the form that they were in to start the season.
If the Union elect not to go after a like-for-like signing this offseason to replace Nogueira, but instead look to veterans like Warren Creavalle or Jones, they will have big shoes to fill. While Jones is not even remotely similar to Nogs, he does offer a different skill set than anyone else on the roster.
“Obviously he’s a young player and has a ton of room to grow.” Curtin said of Jones back when he signed his MLS deal. “He had some great plays today in training and he also had some ones where we had to teach lessons. He’s 19 years old, a baby still - but a kid that has potential.”
Curtin is far from the only one that sees his potential, but that kind of praise from the head coach bodes well for a young player. Curtin also went on to say, “I want to be known as a coach that plays young players and gives them the opportunity to show what they can do. At some point, my dream is to have six or seven of them out there with the right mix of international players sprinkled in and a competitive team that this city can embrace.”
Whether or not Jones will get opportunities to play right from day one in 2017 has yet to be seen, but with the current lack of depth in midfield means he should get chances throughout the year. Brian Carroll will turn 36 this season as well so barring a big signing, Jones should see the field a bit in his first full season.
Ultimately, experience will only further the youngster’s development. Regardless of how he performs in the upcoming season, it should be a great learning experience for a player who, in my eyes, will eventually be a force to be reckoned with in the Union midfield.