Years of hard work for one of the more underrated players in the Philadelphia Union Academy system paid off for 18-year-old Dawson McCartney last week when he made a surprise start in the midfield for Bethlehem Steel FC.
An injury to Chris Wingate cleared the path for McCartney to earn his professional debut on a rainy day in Bethlehem in front of family and friends who had made the trek from his home in Voorhees, New Jersey.
“It’s kind of what I’ve been working for my whole life,” McCartney said of his debut, which impressed the coaching staff enough to insert him into the starting XI again on Sunday against Harrisburg City Islanders.
“He was the most in-form Academy player,” head coach Brendan Burke said of McCartney, who has been training regularly with the team since preseason. “I would have never expected him to respond as well as he has. He’s been composed, he’s been hard when he has to. He’s bringing a little extra energy to the midfield.”
McCartney has been part of the Philadelphia Union Academy since the start of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy era, logging 72 appearances over four seasons split between the U16 and U18 teams. Though he’s long been known for his technical ability and a strong left foot, he’s made perhaps the biggest strides in the physical aspects of his game.
“Over the past four years I’ve progressed a lot,” McCartney said. “Coming in I was kind of small but over the past few years I’ve hit a growth spurt and I feel like that’s helped me a bit. I feel like I’ve always had the technical part of the game but physically I’ve gotten bigger, stronger and that’s helped me.”
Training at a higher level and in a professional environment with stronger and more experienced players - something he and many of his U18 teammates do daily - has contributed to that growth and his play this season for the U18 team, where he’s played all over the midfield and even at left back, has noticeably improved.
“You’re stretching them then sending them back to their comfort zone and then bringing them in on a regular basis,” Burke said. “That’s been the pattern.”
McCartney’s back-to-back standout performances for Steel FC - 73 minutes in a 1-0 loss to Charleston, 76 in a 3-1 win over Harrisburg - were a logical next step for a player who is often overshadowed by some of his Academy teammates.
“He took the game on Thursday by the scruff of the neck and he was excellent,” said midfielder James Chambers. “He can be proud of the performances he put on.”
While he’s soaking up the experience and grateful the club has a new level for older Academy players to train and play, McCartney’s opportunity to continue impressing in USL will soon clash with the pursuit of an Ivy League education. He, along with two of his YSC Academy classmates, Union U18 forward Tiger Graham and Continental FC goalkeeper Aaron Schwartz, are part of the incoming recruiting class at Dartmouth.
“I report to preseason on August 16th,” he said. “Moving forward, that’s my plan right now.”