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Derrick Jones is setting the standard for Union's youth development

The Philadelphia Union’s midfielder has set a high bar for those that follow his path to the pros.

MLS: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Derrick Jones is a bit of an enigma. While those of us in Philadelphia have been following his career for a while know his story, there’s still much we don’t really know about the 20-year-old from Bantama - a small village almost in the exact center of Ghana.

Jones is soft spoken, but his play on the field speaks volumes. It exudes a quiet confidence. He doesn’t look out of place at all on the pitch with men who have played this game at all levels. He fits in. He was meant to do this.

“When I was young, I was watching soccer. I wanted to play it, and hopefully I’d make it to be a professional one day,” Jones told me in an interview recently, adding “I've been dreaming about it since I was young.”

Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Jones joined a local NPSL club Junior Lone Star FC. Jones recalls his time with the club fondly, saying “I was with Lone Star for like a year. It was good. Most of the guys were like my brothers and like my family, so they helped me a lot through playing on and off the field. I think that made me move forward a little bit.”

When Jones joined the Philadelphia Union Academy, the road ahead was uncertain for the 16 year old. “I remember thinking he was hard to miss on the field because of his height and also that he had promise, but was pretty raw,” Brotherly Game Academy correspondent Matt Ralph remembers upon seeing Jones play for the first time back in 2014.

“When I went to the academy I was working hard to play. Whatever happened, happened. If I’d go to the USL, NASL, or the Union I didn't really think of that,” Jones said. “I was just trying to work hard, and whatever would come my way I would take it.”

The Philadelphia Union Academy director Tommy Wilson told us in a recent interview that “having worked with Derrick for years you get to know what he’s capable of. You get to know every aspect of him. And when he's in the school and then the residency (a program for players who live together in team houses), you find out how he learns off the field, what he's like - his applications like in the classroom, his view on education. It has been fantastic to see Derrick grow and develop and mature, for him and his family. I'm really pleased for him. because his grandfather is head of the household and said to me ‘I'm entrusting you with my grandson,’ so for those families it's a big, big responsibility.”

By this time, Jones was already starting to get noticed. “He was always more of an attacker with the Academy, and a good one at that,” Ralph said. The fall of 2015 was a pivotal moment for Jones. “He was really good with the academy that fall. His leadership, confidence on the ball, and ability to make everyone around him better was such a joy to watch,” Ralph recalls. “He also started to show his versatility, playing in more of a defensive role in the midfield and even started a game at center back.”

Jones became the first player ever signed by Bethlehem Steel FC, the Union’s USL affiliate club. “It meant a lot to me because I was in the academy,” Jones said. “I was happy to move up and better myself.”

Jones applied the same work ethic while he was with Steel. Evan Villella, Bethlehem Steel FC correspondent for Brotherly Game, said Jones was “"the total package,” and remembered “so it was him (Jones), Bolu Akinyode, and James Chambers. I thought the three of them were the hardest midfield for other teams to play with physically. But Jonesy especially was everything you want from a mid. Good physical presence. Not afraid of anyone, could score from 18 or so, and knew when to make a forward run.”

Derrick Jones scored five goals in 26 appearances for Bethlehem Steel FC.
Derrick Jones scored five goals in 26 appearances for Bethlehem Steel FC.
Pat Jacoby Photography

“I was just working hard, trying my best,” Jones said. “Everyday in training and in games, I kept working hard and trying my best to go forward.”

Jones’ signing with Bethlehem was in hindsight a bit of a statement by the Union. Signing a player straight from the Academy put out the message that the Union was committed to developing in-house talent and promoting it with a clear path to the first team. Jones would complete that path in July of 2016 when he signed with the Union.

“I was very happy obviously because I played in the academy.” Jones said “Who wouldn't want to be on that MLS team?”

The significance of being the first to undergo the full journey down the path to the pros isn’t lost on Jones, nor is the example he’s setting for his former Academy teammates and teammates with Bethlehem Steel FC.

“I think every kid right now wants to do his best while he's with the academy. I didn't know there was going to be Bethlehem Steel, but I was just trying to work my way forward, toward the first team - obviously I had to go through Bethlehem Steel and then make it up here, so it was a great feeling, like I said it's something I'll never forget.”

Just making it to the MLS club was momentous, but there were no guarantees that he’d get playing time right away. The Union’s central midfield in 2016 was supposed to be a tandem of a creator (Vincent Nogueira) and a destroyer (Maurice Edu), however it never materialized. Edu was hurt, and Nogueira returned to his native France. Instead, a double central defensive midfield pivot of Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle was the most used pairing, with Tranquillo Barnetta and Roland Alberg also thrown into the mix periodically.

The off-season saw Barnetta leave, and with Edu still injured the Union’s approach at the position was changed again. The club had brought in Alejandro Bedoya in 2016 and Bosnian midfielder Haris Medunjanin in early 2017, and the conventional wisdom skipped Jones completely for a Bedoya-Medunjanin pairing. Therefore it came as a bit of a surprise when Bedoya was pushed into the central attacking midfielder role while Jones paired with Medunjanin for the first match in Vancouver.

Jones said getting his first MLS start against the Whitecaps “felt great,” and added “I mean I was nervous because it was an away game, but I worked hard.”

Tommy Wilson thought Jones’ debut was just fine. “I saw veteran in a young man's body. Him and Haris playing together, you couldn't really tell who'd been in the World Cup and played for a senior professional team for all these years.” Wilson continued “I think the sign of a top player is when they get on the ball, the game seems to slow down... I don't remember him giving the ball away. He kept everything very simple.”

Wilson also says that he played a bit of a different game than he did while at the Academy, saying “there's more to come in an attacking sense. He did a lot more defending (against Vancouver) then he did in the academy because we gave him more freedom, but you had to do that. I thought him and Haris worked as a double pivot extremely well in the game. It was like a relationship that normally takes years to develop,” noting that “they haven't played together all that long, just a few preseason games.”

Jones doesn’t look like he’ll be giving up that starting job any time soon, and his quiet confidence is getting him noticed in MLS circles. In the press conference after the Union drew Toronto FC 2-2, Jim Curtin said “Talked to Greg Vanney and Tim Bezbatchenko and a few others and they go ‘wow he’s a man out there.’ He really left a good impression on them which is a compliment because he’s doing it against them. He’s not doing it against guys that are just players. He’s doing it against Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley.”

MLS: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union
Jones has appeared in 256 out of 270 possible minutes for the club so far in 2017.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Admittedly, three games at the MLS level isn’t much of a body of work. Jones however has shown that he has the work ethic and drive to make it at every level he’s played at. The example that Jones has set for his former Bethlehem Steel FC and Union Academy teammates and successors is a great one for other young players to follow.