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High school graduation in the morning, game at night for Fontana

Philadelphia Union midfielder Anthony Fontana will be honored with the latest YSC Academy graduating class before tonight’s game while in uniform

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Philadelphia Union vs Richmond Kickers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Recognizing the graduating class from YSC Academy before a Philadelphia Union game has become a tradition every June over the past few years, but when the class of 2018 steps out onto the field tonight, Anthony Fontana will be hard to miss.

That’s because the 18-year-old from Newark, Delaware, will be in uniform, possibly even preparing to start the match with veteran midfielders Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya both serving red card suspensions.

“I’m happy I’m finally going to be finished with school, high school at least,” Fontana said in an interview after training earlier this week. “YSC has played such a big role in my development, just all the extra training, how supportive the principal, all the teachers have been with my schedule and how flexible they’ve been.”

Fontana had only an English class to finish this spring to complete his high school degree so he hasn’t been around the YSC campus near King of Prussia much since preseason opened in late January.

But that doesn’t mean he feels any less a part of a group of guys — 18 total — he’s spent a lot of time with in the classroom, on the pitch and on long bus rides for road games over the last four years.

“In a way it’s kind of sad leaving there,” Fontana said. “It’s such a close, tight knit group of guys.”

Because of the way the school is designed — training sessions interspersed throughout the day, road trips for many of the students when the Union teams play away (several also play for nearby Development Academy club Continental FC) — the boys at YSC form a bond more closely resembling college than a typical high school. Those in the residency program who come from outside the area even live together in team houses.

“It’s nothing like a traditional high school,” said Philadelphia native Nyk Sessock, a right back on the U19s who came into the school with Fontana in 9th grade. “It’s something really special.”

As such, the reaction to seeing Fontana get first team minutes before finishing high school is met with pride and a show of support among his peers even though they are all working hard daily chasing the same dream. Though not playing every week for the first team, Fontana marked his MLS debut back in March with a goal and scored in his first U.S. Open Cup match on Tuesday.

“You root for your friends,” said Sessock, who is committed to play college soccer at the University of Pitt this fall. “And for a friend to play professionally at the age we are now, I’m just extremely happy for him.”

Fontana first participated in the Union Juniors program when he was 9 before joining the Union U14 team for its first season in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy in 2013. He spent time playing for Kirkwood SC in Delaware and the Chester County-based Penn Fusion Academy prior to joining the Union.

The high school, Fontana said, was key to him reaching the first team when he did, initially signing a homegrown deal last summer and playing for Steel FC as a pro before being officially added to the first team roster in January.

“I would have been working just as hard, but that’s an extra hour of training every day in the morning and then in the afternoon we train,” he said. “All that extra training helped so much. I’d definitely not be where I’m at.”

Like left back Matt Real, who signed a pro deal with the Steel during his senior year of high school before signing a first team deal this January, Fontana has been something of a test case for how the school can work with players to complete their high school diplomas while meeting all that’s asked of a full-time professional in MLS.

“It’s good to know that I kind of helped with setting that path,” Fontana said.

Union head coach Jim Curtin, who first interacted with Fontana as a youth coach when he was part of the Union Juniors program, said seeing what Fontana and his fellow homegrowns have accomplished “shows the strength of the academy and the work (Academy Director) Tommy Wilson’s doing.”

“We’re really happy for Anthony but for all our graduates,” Curtin said earlier this week in a media scrum after training. “A lot of them are going to go on and have good college careers and then from college some of them will be pros too.”

After announcing that Bedoya’s red card suspension appeal had been denied during his press conference Thursday, Curtin would only say that Warren Creavalle would start in central midfield. Whether Fontana’s in the lineup to start though, Curtin hinted that he will see the field.

“It’s a special day,” Curtin said. “Hopefully he can top it off with a goal.”