“But the academy” has become a familiar refrain to deflect criticism of the Philadelphia Union’s performance on the field or majority owner Jay Sugarman’s lack of spending comparable to other teams in Major League Soccer.
“Don’t worry,“ we’re told when the Union suffer another season either missing out on the playoffs or losing in the first round, “reinforcements are coming.“
This idea has existed nearly as long as the team has: that the Union could gain an advantage on the field without spending at the level of teams like Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders, and LA Galaxy by identifying and developing talent from their backyard.
It’s an idea on face value that has merit, especially given the success players from our region have had in the league in the past. The Union tapping into the local market to develop players for the first team is a feel-good story, one that too often has become the default narrative when the product on the field is less than inspiring.
I know this firsthand because over the past four years I’ve been writing about the academy and tracking the progress of a core group of players who have now made their way to the first team.
It’s been exciting to watch, seeing promising young players like Mark McKenzie, Matt Real and Anthony Fontana go from starring in Development Academy games to earning minutes in USL to signing a first team contract. A team that had only three players signed from local youth affiliate clubs in its first seven seasons is now five deep with homegrown players who have come through the academy. A sixth player — Adam Najem — counts as a homegrown player because his rights were acquired from the New York Red Bulls.
This crop of homegrown signings — who for the most part have been with the academy for the past five years — is largely responsible for bringing the Union’s average age from 26.70 a year ago to just under over 25 as the season approaches.
It’s something that not only looks good on paper but shows that the front office is following through and investing in players from its academy ranks.
Of course, having young players and playing them are two very different things.
Last season, Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty played a combined 702 minutes — all of those were from Jones in 12 appearances — but Trusty seems to be poised to make his MLS debut in the starting lineup on Saturday. It will be a big day for the 19-year-old who grew up a few miles away in Media and an even bigger step for the Union if he is able to hold onto the position.
Midfielder Anthony Fontana is also expected to make his first team debut in the starting lineup, mostly due to the drawn out process of the Bořek Dočkal signing and Ilsinho pulling a hamstring in a preseason scrimmage. Though he spent time training in England in the offseason, Jones feels as far away from the starting XI as he was when the Union were out of playoff contention at the end of last season and he still wasn’t playing. Having veterans like Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin ahead of you will do that, though.
Real, meanwhile, is the backup to Fabinho for now, and given head coach Jim Curtin’s high praise of the veteran left back just last week it’s hard to imagine Real breaking into the lineup anytime soon. Even an injury to Fabi would be no guarantee since Ray Gaddis also has experience playing on the left side.
Elsewhere on the team, there are “young” players who weren’t developed in-house that face similar uncertainty.
Cameroonian winger Eric Ayuk returns from a year on loan still only 21 years old but no closer to cracking the lineup while 24-year-old Keegan Rosenberry has still not regained his status as the guaranteed starter at right back. The 22-year-old Jack Elliott is as close to being a lock as there is in the team’s center back corps in part because of the continued struggles of his 23-year-old backup Joshua Yaro. Najem, meanwhile, can’t feel too confident going into the season being stuck behind an 18-year-old with no MLS experience in the depth chart.
The age and experience in the back line is one of the biggest questions facing the Union as they head into the season. For as much as Trusty has looked the part in preseason, it remains to be seen how he and Elliott will handle the pressure from the best attackers in MLS. A few slip-ups from Trusty could mean a switch back to the oldest center back on the roster in 25-year-old Richie Marquez.
Should that happen, the Union are left with potentially all five academy grads on the bench, no doubt gaining experience in training but no closer to proving the academy is capable of producing starting XI quality players for MLS, to say nothing of Best XI or transfer fee fetching prospects.
So yes, let’s celebrate when Trusty and Fontana make their debuts and give credit to Tommy Wilson and his staff with the academy along with Brendan Burke and company at Steel FC but let’s not rush to say the long-awaited youth movement has finally arrived.
Until, of course, it actually has.