The Philadelphia Union U19 team closed out the first half of its 2017-18 season with a strong showing in Florida last weekend, picking up seven points in three matches.
Beyond just the points earned in the standings - they go into the break in second place in the Atlantic Division with a 10-2-2 record - it was the style of play that impressed head coach Jeff Cook most about the team at the annual U.S. Development Academy Winter Showcase.
“I was very impressed with how the group handled the challenging conditions, playing three games in four days against some of the better teams in the country,” Cook said. “I think overall we can be satisfied with how the games went.”
Cook, who serves as an assistant coach for Bethlehem Steel, said the exposure many of the older academy players have received training and playing in the USL environment really showed in some of the individual performances.
Midfielder Brenden Aaronson, for example, opened the showcase with a pair of well-taken goals in a 4-1 win over Real Salt Lake but also showed well in the data collected for work rate and distance covered.
“It was very pleasing to see,” Cook said. “It shows that his game has jumped a level.”
Fellow South Jersey players Michael Pellegrino and Jeremy Rafanello also got in on the scoring in the Real Salt Lake match while Rafanello also scored in a 2-0 win over Kendall SC. Darius Lewis and Issa Rayyan scored goals in a 2-2 draw with Sporting Kansas City while Liam O’Brien added a goal in the Kendall SC game.
Rafanello leads the team with 16 goals in his first half season since joining the team from Continental FC, where he scored 20 goals last season.
“Jeremy has been excellent since he’s been with us,” Cook said. “He’s extremely hardworking, he’s a humble kid. He’s fit right in with the group.”
Cook also noted the play of Seth Kuhn in his holding midfield role where he has excelled in opening up the field with his passing and ability to control the tempo of the game. Tonny Temple also provided a punch in the attack as he has all season while Lewis was his usual handful for defenses.
Defender Nykolas Sessock also had a strong showing, playing both at his right back position and filling in at left back at one point. Cook said his alertness, one-v-one defending and knack for putting out fires while being involved in the attack were all notable as was the defensive performance of center back Ben Ofeimu, who dealt well with the difficult task of marking Real Salt Lake attacker Sebastian Soto, the league’s leading goal scorer with 21 goals in 11 games. Also on the defensive side, goalkeeper Brady McSwain picked up his third clean sheet of the season in his fourth appearance against Kendall SC.
“Everyone brought everything they had,” said Sessock, who is committed to play at Pitt next fall. “I knew going into it this it would be my last winter showcase and I wasn’t worrying about what colleges thought of me or anything like that. I went in with a lot of confidence and I think a lot of the other players did too and we just made the most of it.”
The U19s continue training through mid-December and resume in mid-January but the season won’t start back up again until they take on rivals Continental FC on March 3 in Conshohocken. Bethlehem Steel will open preseason in February, which will give an opportunity once again for several of the U19s to be integrated into the USL environment.