After over a year playing mostly closed door or unannounced friendlies on the training field in Chester, Philadelphia Union II is more than ready for the curtain to raise on its inaugural game in the new MLS Next Pro league at Subaru Park on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s an opportunity to showcase what this club is and has been building over the last year,” head coach Marlon LeBlanc said this week.
After exiting the USL Championship following the 2020 season, Union II went ahead scheduling games on their own while waiting the launch of the third division MLS Next Pro. They played a mix of amateur and professional teams in 2021, playing about two dozen games almost entirely out of the public eye.
“I think what most people don’t realize is how productive we’ve probably been over that time period,” LeBlanc said. “And we’ve seen some significant growth and a lot of these guys I think came out in preseason that was was really positive from our end.”
Nine players are on Next Pro contracts with Union II, but the roster from week to week will fluctuate depending on a number of factors. Today’s game falling on an international break could mean more availability for some first team players not including the four away with the United States U20s. Cole Turner, Jesus Bueno and Anton Sorenson played in Union II’s last preseason friendly last Sunday vs Queensboro FC.
“Every week, I think you’re going to see something different,” LeBlanc said. “There are a lot of intangibles that will determine that...when is the first team game, when is the second team game, before after? Are we traveling together? Are we not traveling together? Are we in different sites?”
Unsigned academy players will also factor into the game day rosters like top prospect Bajung Darboe, high school seniors Jackson Gilman, Jack Jasinski and Ian Abbey and other younger academy prospects like goalkeeper Andrew Rick, defender Frankie Westfield and others. Gilman started at center back and Westfield at right back in the Queensboro friendly. Boubacar Diallo, a 19-year-old midfielder from Senegal, also started in that friendly.
The blend of signed players includes Nelson Pierre from the Union’s academy, four international signings (Carlos Paternina, Maike Villero, Juan Perdomo and Jose Riasco), a domestic amateur signing of defender Nathan Nkanji, two college player signings (Chris Donovan and Stefan Stojanovic) and the signing of former Sporting Kansas City homegrown goalkeeper Brooks Thompson.
Donovan, a former Pennsylvania High School Player of the Year at Conestoga who starred at Drexel and West Chester United during his college years, is making the most of the opportunity to compete for his hometown club.
“I’m really enjoying the style of play.” said Donovan, who just recently completed his course work at Drexel. “And I just really like being in a professional environment.
Donovan, a forward, was drafted in the 2022 MLS SuperDraft by the Columbus Crew but after a brief preseason stint with the Crew they opted not to sign him to a contract and he joined up with Union II, a club he had played against previously in exhibitions for West Chester United.
He’s in line to make his professional debut today along with a handful of other players his junior.
“It’s interesting to be one of the older and more experienced members but it’s something that I’ve enjoyed so far,” Donovan said. “I’m just looking forward to playing in real matches.”
Today’s “real” match kicks off at 2 p.m. against FC Cincinnati 2 and will be streamed live on mlsnextpro.com. Tickets to the match to see in person are $12.