Say what you want about Jordan Morris and the MLS hype machine that has already christened him an American star: his signing to the richest Homegrown Player contract in league history has raised the bar even higher for teams looking to develop a future star of their own.
This bar for the Union is currently sitting on the floor after the club essentially wiped the slate clean by trading away the last of their three Homegrown signings, Zach Pfeffer, to the Colorado Rapids in January.
Of the three Homegrown signings the Union have made, Pfeffer was the only one to play any meaningful minutes for the first team but the fourth-youngest player to ever sign an MLS contract was largely a disappointment with his hometown club. Pfeffer made 30 appearances from 2011-2015 while Jimmy McLaughlin made only five league appearances in his time with the team and Cristhian Hernandez just two.
Hernandez was the last Homegrown Player signed nearly four years ago and it turns out his signing was one of several ways former head coach Piotr Nowak thumbed his nose at Major League Soccer.
According to court documents in Nowak's lawsuit against the club that were made public in January, the Union were sanctioned by the league in May 2012 over the way the Hernandez signing was handled.
League officials have confirmed that the sanction - a $75,000 loss in allocation money and a $35,000 fine - was because Hernandez had not fulfilled the proper amount of training with the team to make him Homegrown eligible. Interestingly enough, this was the same reasoning the league used to deny the Union's Homegrown claim on rookie Keegan Rosenberry, on whom they had to use the third-overall pick in the SuperDraft to acquire in January.
Hernandez was cut from the team before the start of last season so the league wasn't able to exercise the other part of its punishment, which was to keep two-thirds of any transfer revenue. Hernandez currently plays in the NPSL with New York Cosmos B.
Turning the page
A lot has changed for the Union in terms of player development since Nowak broke the rules to sign Hernandez after already breaking league rules by playing him in a friendly before he was signed.
The first three Homegrowns all played in a part-time "club and country" style youth setup, which retroactively should call into question both Pfeffer and McLaughlin's eligibility given that Rosenberry was developed in the same setup. The Union now have a full-time Academy with teams competing in their third season in three age levels in the U.S. Development Academy and several other teams competing in various youth leagues.
This new system has attracted a healthy collection of prospects currently plying their trade with the Union Academy, which has a residency program and a high school (YSC Academy) that have made it possible to bring in players from other states in addition to scouting from local clubs. Midfielder Yosef Samuel joined the Academy last season from Georgia and is most likely to be the next signing out of the Academy either to Bethlehem Steel FC or as a Homegrown Player on the first team. Sebastian Elney, a forward from Florida who had an outstanding freshman season at Maryland, is a good candidate for a Homegrown deal possibly as soon as next winter as long as he fulfills the requirement for training with the club over the summer.
There are dozens of other college players with Union Academy experience who we can expect to see in years to come either at Bethlehem Steel or the first team. While it's anyone's guess if seniors-to-be Connor Maloney (Penn State), Colton Storm (North Carolina), and Billy McConnell (Indiana) will be homegrown eligible, players like Patrick Berneski (Notre Dame), Doyle Tuvesson (Lehigh), Sean Wilson (North Carolina), and Zach Zandi (Villanova) are just a few names to track over the next couple years.
Whoever the next Homegrown signing is, he won't have any company on the first team. If you count D.C. United homegrowns Ethan White (New York City FC) and Michael Seaton (Portland Timbers), the Union are the only team in MLS that doesn't currently have a homegrown on their roster.
The fact that Portland won MLS Cup without a single player developed in-house shows that developing your own players isn't a must to be successful. But when as a fan base you've been told repeatedly that the youth are the future, it's worth noting that the total yield to the first team from this development system is 37 league starts over five seasons.
The Seattle Sounders launched their Academy in 2010 and it took them three years to produce DeAndre Yedlin and another three years to sign the team doctor's kid (Morris). Hopefully, with the missteps and disasters of the past behind us, the Union's future with Homegrown Players will be a brighter one.