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Derrick Jones proof of pathway to the pros

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Six years in, the Philadelphia Union’s plan to have players go from Academy to first team has finally come to fruition. There’s still work to do, however.

Derrick Jones

While most of us might have seen it as a meaningless midseason friendly, we were actually witnessing a promising bit of Philadelphia Union history when Derrick Jones was substituted in at the half of the match against Crystal Palace FC. With those 45 minutes, Derrick Jones became the first player to go from the Philadelphia Union Academy, through Bethlehem Steel FC, and on to the first team. For a club that has repeatedly stated that they would look to develop players, this is the proof of concept that this system will work.

"I thought he performed very well," said Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin during his post-match press conference about Jones, commending him later for a great through ball. "It’s good for our number eight to look for him to play penetrating balls, and Derrick did that twice in the game that led to chances. On a different night maybe we think to shoot first instead of pass... (he) was excellent." Curtin also revealed that at halftime "to enjoy the moment. Have fun. Play with a smile on (your) face. You’re here for a reason. We believe in you," also stating that Jones "left a good impression on our whole staff."

When asked what he thought Jones’ best position would be when he makes the transition to the first team, Curtin paused and said "Derrick will decide that" before cautioning about getting too far ahead. "There’s no guarantees (for first team play) because you play a good 45 minutes with us. We have an eye on longevity and on the future. We like Derrick a lot. Derrick has performed well, but to say ‘when he plays for the first team’ is a bit premature. He did well tonight. You see quality that is there. Tony Tchani is a guy who he reminds me of, and Derrick is actually faster. That’s what we want, what we want to push him to be. Could he be even better? Absolutely. It’s up to us as a coaching staff to continue to develop him. Work with him each and every day, having his head on a swivel. When he does make a mistake, we don’t care about that, we care about your reaction to win the ball back immediately. He’s still young and has lapses of that, but to do it against Crystal Palace is a darn good first step, and I think Derrick is trending in the right direction. Is he there yet? Is he the complete package? He’s not. And I’ll tell that to him and we have discussion all the time. He’s a good young player, and we want to continue to develop good young players here in Philadelphia. He’s on his way, but I don’t want to concede that he’s made it by any stretch, because we like to push our guys harder. He played a good 45 minutes, but then there’s 90, and then a full season, and then there’s another season, and another, and another, and then maybe you start to talk about being a good player and making it. So a long way to go, but positive."

In a broader context though, those 45 minutes that proved there is a clear path from getting reps with the Academy to the first teams. From the training fields in what was once the parking lot adjacent to Talen Energy Stadium into the stadium itself to represent the city of Philadelphia and the greater region. While this is standard protocol throughout most of the professional soccer ranks, this is the first year the path has been available and as well defined.

Jones seemed to be taking it all in stride. "Before the game, I was nervous. But when I got on the field, my teammates motivated me, so that kept me going." He also said "I think I did okay. I’m really excited I got the chance to play in front of the Philly fans, so I’m happy."

Veteran defender Ray Gaddis had this to say about Jones, "Derrick is like a little brother to me. I’ve known him growing through the academy. As I’ve been here for five years with Philadelphia Union, I’ve known some of the academy players quite well. I go watch them and support them just like they support us at our games. The advice I just had to him was that I’ve seen him enough, you’re good enough to play, just have fun and play simple. When you play simple everything comes easy. As you guys saw he played simple. He completed a lot of passes. He turned well in the midfield and I’m very proud of Derrick."

Jones has paved the way for other Academy prospects who are willing to sacrifice and put in the work necessary to become a professional soccer player. He’s still got a ton of work left to do in order to "make it", but he - and every other player in the Union’s system - should realize that these goals are attainable.