Calls to “play the kids” have been growing louder with each successive disappointing performance in recent weeks for a Philadelphia Union team currently sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and sixth in the Supporters’ Shield race.
For good reason.
The Union are winless in five straight road games and have had a W-L-D record of 1-2-3 in a run of games that saw Matt Freese’s three starts as the only starts from homegrown players. The last homegrown field player to start was Quinn Sullivan on June 26 in Chicago, which was the game where he scored a bicycle kick in an otherwise disappointing 3-3 draw.
During this run of form — aided no doubt by playing all but once at home — the Philadelphia Union announced the extension of Sporting Director Ernst Tanner and the press release announcing the two-year deal highlighted the following:
One of his biggest areas of emphasis has been investing from within, with a focus on the Union’s youth system. He has successfully created a more efficient and consistent pipeline from the Union Academy, through Union II, to the first team and beyond as he saw through the Union’s first European transfers in Homegrowns Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie. His investment in the academy over the last three years saw the academy most recently named best Boys Soccer Club in the United States by SoccerWire.com.
Additionally, he has supplemented the club’s strategy of building around top American veterans and the best youth program in the country by identifying hidden international talents such as Kacper Przybylko, Kai Wagner, Jakob Glesnes and Jose Martinez.
One puzzling thing about these two paragraphs is how much it downplays what perhaps has been Tanner’s greatest contribution to the team: nailing the international signings with only one or two exceptions. But it also reflects a roster build that appears to be just the opposite of what we’ve seen this season, especially as it relates to young academy-bred players.
Head coach Jim Curtin has started a homegrown field player in just eight of 16 matches in MLS play in 2021 (Matt Freese started three with Andre Blake away with Jamaica for the Gold Cup).
While it’s likely true that number would be higher if not for Jack de Vries being out with a concussion since preseason and Anthony Fontana being out with a concussion since the Atlanta United game on June 20, it’s still been a somewhat unexpected development and underscores a different approach this season after the sale of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie than the one being laid out in the Tanner press release.
With the addition of Dániel Gazdag and the reported signings of Jesús Bueno and Matheus Davó, the team has seemingly shifted even more to international signings than ever before.
Of the top 10 players in minutes played this season, only Alejandro Bedoya and offseason acquisition Leon Flach are eligible to represent the USMNT and none were developed in the academy. You have to go all the way to 14th on the list of minutes so far this season to find a homegrown player: Anthony Fontana with 323 minutes.
One key factor in this might be the lack of a competition platform for Union 2, which dropped out of the USL Championship and is currently only playing an occasional friendly like one against an Orlando City reserve squad last week. The team is joining the new MLS third division league in 2022 so it is likely just a blip on the radar but it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t disrupted at least a bit the pipeline that players like Aaronson and McKenzie took full advantage of in their rise from academy standouts to MLS Best XI performers and USMNT regulars.
The academy continues to be a bright spot with plenty of promise that is attracting top youth talent from around the country but the current disconnect between the U17 team and signed homegrowns getting first team opportunitiees illustrates at least a mild cause for near if not long term concern.
Recent performances off the bench from Quinn Sullivan, who set up the goal that salvaged the point Sunday night and helped salvage a point in Chicago with his MLS Goal of the Week and Jack McGlynn, who was involved in the build-up to Sunday night’s goal and has held his own in three starts, are partially the reason for the “play the kids” calls from fans, which Aaronson and McKenzie successfully silenced as breakout performers. But it’s also the performances from the veteran-heavy lineups that are playing and underwhelming against teams they need to be picking up three points against that have given rise to an increasing desire for a youth injection into the lineup.
If the Union had performed the way they have over the last run of six games with homegrown players getting multiple opportunities, the results might be more palatable. The fact that it is the regulars underwhelming is all the more reason to change things up and for Curtin and his technical staff to listen to their own messaging about what the club is about.