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Mark McKenzie makes MLS debut surrounded by fellow academy grads

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For the third time this season, an injury cleared the way for another Philadelphia Union homegrown to make his MLS debut

MLS: Orlando City SC at Philadelphia Union Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

An early season story line of injuries clearing the way for young homegrowns making their MLS debut continued on Friday night when Mark McKenzie got the call to replace the injured Jack Elliott against Orlando City.

The 19-year-old Bear, Delaware, native checked in for Elliott in the 52nd minute when the 22-year-old suffered an injury to his right leg. With 19-year-old Auston Trusty and 18-year-old Matt Real to his left and 24-year-old Keegan Rosenberry to his right, McKenzie helped break the Union’s own record set just two weeks ago in Colorado for the youngest back line in league history.

McKenzie in the lineup also meant an all-academy back line since Rosenberry was a member of the Union’s part-time academy setup while also playing for youth affiliate club Penn Fusion Academy prior to his four years at college at Georgetown. McKenzie, Trusty, and Real all climbed the ranks together through the Philadelphia Union Academy while Real and McKenzie have also attended U.S. youth international camps together.

“It’s like the old days but at the same time it’s a much higher level,” McKenzie said after the match.

Real and McKenzie were both on the U14 team for the Union’s first season in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy back in 2013-14 and all three crossed paths at various times on the U16 and U18 teams before each made the jump to Bethlehem Steel and eventually signed first team contracts — Auston Trusty in August 2016 and Real and McKenzie this past January.

Friday night was the first time all three featured in the same back line as professionals; Trusty and McKenzie last paired in central defense for the Steel last April. The group — average age 20 — didn’t allow a goal for the final 38 minutes together Friday night but the damage had already been done by that point as the Union suffered another loss and the offense put up another zero on the scoreboard.

“I thought I handled myself well out there, being able to connect on the first couple passes and get into the game,” said McKenzie, who spurned a USL contract to play a season of college soccer at Wake Forest before returning to sign a homegrown deal. “But at the end of the day, we didn’t get the result that we wanted. Now we have to dig ourselves out and get back at it this week for our game against Dallas and get the three points.”

Rosenberry, who became the old man on the back line when 33-year-old left back Fabinho went down with an injury, said he was proud of how McKenzie performed.

“He was calm,” Rosenberry said. “He stepped right in and that’s not easy. I’ve done it before where you come into the middle of a game when the pressure is on, especially at a position like center back when the game is open like that, it’s difficult so it’s a credit to him.”

Anthony Fontana, who didn’t play for the second straight game after appearing in the first three games, started on opening night of the season for Bořek Dočkal, who was slowed by an ankle injury shortly after joining the team on loan from the Chinese Super League.

Mark McKenzie with Auston Trusty behind him and Union head coach Jim Curtin watching in the background at a Union U18 academy game in May 2016
Matt Ralph