Last year was a banner year in youth development for the Philadelphia Union, as the long promised impact of the team’s investment in youth development was finally felt with a pair of homegrown signings.
Auston Trusty and Derrick Jones still have a long way to go to be considered success stories, but their signings both ushered in a new era for the Philadelphia Union Academy. The Academy had previously only produced three homegrown players, all of whom spent the bulk of their time at local youth club affiliates.
The founding of USL club Bethlehem Steel FC played a key role in both Trusty and Jones making it to the first team - Trusty played there most of the season as an amateur and Jones was the club’s first signing - and will continue to be the bridge between the academy and the first team for many, but not all players. For those who go to college, there’s PDL affiliate Reading United in the summer to fill the gap.
Here’s a look at players to watch in the coming months.
Anthony Fontana, Midfielder
The Delaware native has had a long relationship with the Union organization and a history of competing at higher age levels. His performance in USL last season and a recent invite to the first team’s preseason trip to Florida are all positive signs of progress for a player who doesn’t turn 18 until October.
Matthew Real, Defender
Real signed his first professional contract with Bethlehem Steel FC last month six months shy of graduating from high school. He passed on an opportunity to play at Wake Forest in the process and looks poised to be the starting left back this season. Left back seems to be covered currently at the first team but a solid season in Bethlehem would give the first team options.
Justin McMaster, Forward
McMaster should get a lot of minutes this season with Bethlehem Steel FC, and how he performs will go a long way in determining whether he has a decision to make between a professional contract and a season or two in college soccer at Wake Forest.
Mark McKenzie, Defender
McKenzie is in a similar situation to McMaster, with playing time expected for Steel FC and an opportunity to play at one of the best college programs in the nation at Wake Forest.
Josue Monge, Midfielder
If there’s a player from the academy ranks who hasn’t gotten enough attention over the past couple years, it’s Josue. A playmaker with vision, maturity and skill on the ball, Monge should have a chance to earn some more minutes in Bethlehem this season and make his case for a pro contract.
Rayshaun McGann, Defender
McGann hasn’t made his debut at Bethlehem Steel FC yet and doesn’t graduate from high school until 2018 but has consistently been one of the organization’s top youth prospects since his arrival from Florida in 2014.
Yosef Samuel, Forward
Samuel signed with Steel FC in September before the last game of the season so he hasn’t had much of a chance to showcase his skills at the USL level but he should get that chance this season and make good on the promise he showed with an invite to the first team’s training camp last year.
Andrew Verdi, Goalkeeper, University of Michigan
Verdi didn’t play in his first season in Ann Arbor but with Evan Louro leaving early to sign a homegrown deal with Red Bulls Academy, he’ll have a chance to win the starting job and play his way into the homegrown picture.
Michael Pellegrino, Midfielder
The South Jersey native who is primarily a holding midfielder but has also played on the back line is still only 16 and has time still to develop, but continues to be one of the most promising future prospects currently playing on the U16 team.
Matthew Freese, Goalkeeper
Freese has been a bit of an anomaly as it relates to the Academy since he joined last summer but returned for his senior season at Episcopal Academy in the fall. His recent invite to a U.S. U19 camp and time training with the first team shows his promise, but his eligibility to sign for the club before or during his time at Harvard is a question mark.
Other Players to Watch
Zach Zandi, Midfielder, Villanova University
Raheem Taylor-Parkes, Forward, University of Virginia
Joseph DeZart, Midfielder, Wake Forest
Marco Bla, Midfielder, U16 team
Kristopher Shakes, Goalkeeper, U16/U18 team
Tomas Romero, Goalkeeper, U16/U18 team
Nykolas Sessock, Defender, U18 team
Issa Rayyan, Forward, U18 team
Axel Picazo, Midfielder, U16 team
Brenden Aaronson, Midfielder, U16 team
Jack De Vries, Midfielder, U14 team
Julian Anderson, Midfielder, U14 team
Aboubacar Camara, Forwarrd, U14 team
Paxten Aaronson, Midfielder, U14 team