Two former Philadelphia Union players will be playing for a championship on Saturday in Connecticut when National Premier Soccer League newcomers Elm City Express host Midland-Odessa FC.
Midfielder Cristhian Hernández and goalkeeper Matt Jones never played together in Chester, but both have been a big reason for the first-year club’s success.
“It’s a special feeling you know,” said Hernández, who was named to the Northeast Region’s Best XI this season. “This is what we play for, to play for a championship.”
The league final almost didn’t happen with Midland-Odessa scrambling to field a team after a number of player departures back to college. They are expected to only have 11 players dressed and no regular goalkeepers for the match.
But their trip to New Haven will ensure the trophy is won on the field, something even well-traveled players like Hernández and Jones recognize is not a common occurrence.
“I played in semifinals in Portugal,” Jones said. “But this is my first final.”
A new chapter for a former homegrown
Hernández signed with the Union when he was 18, becoming the third homegrown signing for the club after playing in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy with youth club affiliate Players Development Academy. He made two appearances for the first team over three seasons, spending most of his time on loan with Harrisburg City Islanders.
He joined New York Cosmos B in the NPSL in 2015, but hasn’t been heard of much since. Through former youth teammate, classmate and host family brother Thomas Bull, Hernández connected with Elm City president Zack Henry and a trial was arranged.
“I was delighted with the opportunity,” he said. “The way I looked at it, it was a stepping stone to get back on the field.”
Still only 23, Hernández has shown the kind of skill that earned him U.S. Soccer Development Academy U18 Player of the Year in 2011. He’s hopeful his success with Elm City will lead to future opportunities in the USL and MLS.
Building a foundation
For Matt Jones, who wasn’t retained at the end of his one season with the Union last year, Elm City Express was an opportunity to keep playing and to be part of building a club from scratch.
A 31-year-old from Stoke-on-Trent, England who grew up rooting for local club Port Vale FC, Jones played in college in Connecticut at Sacred Heart and had always intended on moving back with his wife and now 14-month old son after his professional career wound down.
“My wife’s family isn’t too far,” Jones said. “And I knew I wanted to start putting down some foundations.”
In addition to being one of the first two players to join the team, Jones landed coaching gigs at Quinnipiac University and for local youth club Connecticut FC.
“The club has been incredibly professional from the start,” Jones said. “I’m delighted to be a part of it.”
A soccer team for New Haven
The community has responded with lively crowds at the 1,250-seat Reese Stadium at Yale University.
“Since day one the fans have embraced it,” Jones said.
Hernández, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and spent time in the LA Galaxy Academy before moving to New Jersey as a teenager, said the soccer community in Connecticut has been far stronger and supportive than he imagined before the season started.
“I’m just excited for Saturday,” he said. “I think the atmosphere is going to be the best it’s ever been.”
The game kicks off at 8:15 p.m. and will be streamed live at www.elmcityexpress.com/watch-live.