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Eight players made Philadelphia Union debuts in New York Red Bulls scrimmage

Homegrown goalkeeper Matthew Freese and recent Steel FC signings Zach Zandi and Ben Ofeimu saw their first game minutes as pros in a 3-2 win on Wednesday

Matthew Freese in a preseason scrimmage against New York Red Bulls on January 30, 2019 in Clearwater, Florida
Marc Estrada

While it was only a January scrimmage and the result was meaningless, the Philadelphia Union’s 3-2 win over the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday was a memorable occasion for a number of players who saw the field.

Homegrown goalkeeper Matthew Freese and Bethlehem Steel FC duo Zach Zandi and Ben Ofeimu all saw their first minutes since signing professional contracts and current academy player Cole Turner took the field with the first team for the first time when he checked into the game at center back in the second half.

Brazilian off-season signings Sergio Santos and Carlos Miguel Coronel and veteran defender Aurelien Collin appeared for the first time with the blue and gold and Kacper Przybylko saw his first minutes with the Union since signing last September (he did participate in a closed-door friendly with Bethlehem Steel FC in New York City shortly after joining the team).

For Freese, who left Harvard after his sophomore season to sign a homegrown contract in December, the debut followed a surreal first week of training with a club he has supported since he was a 11-year-old kid at their first ever home game.

“That first game that was right when the Union Juniors program had just started and I went to the game with my mom and brother talking about how sick some of the other kids I was playing with and then going and watching my first professional soccer game and seeing how much better they were,” Freese said in an interview last week before the team left for Florida. “It’s crazy that 10 years later here I am.”

Where he was on Wednesday was checking into the game for Coronel, who replaced Andre Blake after the first half hour. The 22-year-old is expected to be the backup and start when Blake is off on international duty for the Gold Cup, leaving the majority of Freese’s minutes as a rookie likely to come with Bethlehem Steel.

Sergio Santos in his first game for the Philadelphia Union, a scrimmage against the New York Red Bulls on January 30, 2019 in Clearwater, Florida
Marc Estrada

Interestingly enough, Freese was one of three players who saw time for the Union on Wednesday that spent time with Penn Fusion Academy prior to joining the Union Academy. The two others were Anthony Fontana, who had a goal but also picked up two yellow cards and Zandi, who checked in for Fontana when he was sent off (as is custom for scrimmages, the team.

Zandi signed a Steel contract after finishing up his career at Villanova University in the fall.

“I absolutely owe a lot to them,” Freese said of his time at Penn Fusion. “They helped me believe in myself and they are a feeder into the (Union Academy).”

The Union Academy was well-represented in Wednesday’s preseason opener. In addition to Freese, Zandi and Fontana, academy grads Matthew Real and Derrick Jones saw the field and high school seniors Brenden Aaronson (first team), Ofeimu (Steel FC) and Turner (committed to Naval Academy) all made appearances.

Aaronson made his first appearance with the first team in the first game of the 2018 preseason against New York Red Bulls and scored a goal in the 4-3 loss.

“The final 30 minutes with some young guys on the field showed really well,” head coach Jim Curtin said in a post-game interview. “We kind of lost our way in the last couple minutes, lost our minds with some fouls around the box, some silly plays but overall as a starting point for the preseason a really good 90 minutes against a good opponent.”

Next up, the Union will face the University of South Florida at 7 p.m. on Saturday back at Joe DiMaggio Sports Complex in Clearwater.