When the four teams remaining in the quest for a college soccer championship arrived in town earlier this week, most were coming to Chester and Talen Energy Stadium for the very first time.
But a handful came with a much deeper understanding of the Philadelphia Union organization through their experiences in the Philadelphia Union Academy and the team’s Premier Development League affiliate, Reading United AC.
Four players - two each from Akron and North Carolina - have been part of the Reading United setup while five (Morgan Hackworth at Akron, Drew Skundrich and Andrew Aprahamian at Stanford, Jack Skahan and Will Campbell at UNC) have been involved in the Union’s youth system one way or another.
Campbell, a redshirt sophomore defender has experienced both the academy and the PDL setup, having played in Reading the past two summers after starring for the Union U18s from 2013-15. Playing time in college has been hard to come by for Campbell as he’s earned just eight appearances in two seasons. (You can read more about Campbell in a Q&A posted on the Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer website).
“Will’s there still fighting, I think he might have had a chance to move on but wanted to stay and fight it out and that’s just testament to his character,” Reading United head coach Stephen Hogan said in an interview at Power Training Complex on Thursday. “He really likes it there and really likes the staff. He just doesn’t want to give up on something he’s started.”
Fellow Tar Heel Jelani Pieters, who has also played in Reading the past two summers, has had a breakout year on the attacking side of the ball. After registering just one assist in 18 substitute appearances in 2016, the Illinois native leads the team with nine goals and seven assists in 21 starts.
Hogan, who is an assistant on the Bethlehem Steel staff, has seen the growth coaching Pieters for two summers in Reading.
“Jelani has had a great season, obviously a standout year for him,” Hogan said. “His feet are starting to catch up with his speed and his intelligence is starting to come through a little more now, which I know were one or two things we were talking with him about when he was up in Reading and training with Steel.”
Akron’s duo of goalkeeper Ben Lundt and defender Nate Brown round out the College Cup connections.
Lundt, a native of Berlin, Germany, has started all but four of the Zips games this year in goal and has 20 shutouts in two seasons in Akron since transferring from Division 2 Lenoir-Rhyne. A late arrival to Reading last summer, the 6-foot-6 keeper made just four starts but had a chance to work with Steel in training and former first team goalkeeper coach Oka Nikolov, who Hogan said held him in high regard.
“Great lad, great character,” Hogan said. “He obviously had a huge impact in the last round with penalty saves.”
Brown transferred to Akron from Division 2 Saint Rose after spending last summer with Reading United to finish out his college career and has made six appearances and a pair of starts on the back line for the Zips.
While in Reading, Hogan and the staff worked with the athletic on honing his decision-making skills for the next level.
“I’m excited for him,” Hogan said. “I think he could have a career in USL.”
Brown and Lundt of course aren’t the only connections between the Union organization and Akron. The Union signed midfielder Adam Najem out of Akron last offseason after acquiring his homegrown rights from the New York Red Bulls.
“Adam was one of the best players at Akron in (its) history,” Akron head coach Jared Embick said at a press conference Thursday. “And he led us in ‘15 and he's a tremendous player and I think he's going to be a tremendous pro here for Philadelphia in the near future.”
Akron plays Stanford, which they lost to in the semifinal in 2015, in the first of two games kicking off at 6 p.m. at Talen Energy Stadium tonight. Both games will be broadcast on ESPNU.