The sun was bright in the sky, but on Sunday it was Union assistant coach Jim Curtin that beamed with pride.
“Little by little, we are closing the gap, he said.”
Curtin was onto something following a 1-1 draw with Chelsea FC in an under-23 match against the Union behind closed doors at PPL Park.
This match however was less about the final score line and more about getting academy, developmental and Union reserves a chance to play a match in front of coaches – in this case, against the feeder system of one of the world’s best clubs.
Union assistant Brendan Burke and academy director Tommy Wilson managed a 20-man team, starting eight players from the Union’s full team roster in goalkeeper Chris Konopka, Aaron Wheeler, Matt Kassel, Don Anding, Roger Torres and Antoine Hoppenot and included homegrown players Cristhian Hernandez and Jimmy McLaughlin, both of which started.
Actually, it was McLaughlin who put the Union ahead in the fifth minute, finishing off a ball played in from Torres, who used his low center of gravity and quick feet to elude defenders, create space and find McLaughlin for the score.
“Whenever you get an opportunity to play against one of the best clubs in the world it’s a dream come true…for all of us,” said McLaughlin, who is currently on loan with Harrisburg, the Union’s developmental affiliate in USL-PRO. “I always want to try and prove myself to the coaches and I am happy with how it went.”
The game was one of many since the inception of the Union that was kept behind closed doors and in this case only a sprinkling of family members on either side were present. A mixture of coaches from the Union and the academy side made up bench personnel and the players that were given a chance to play were all on radar to make the PPL Park their home office in the future.
In a game that featured soaring temperatures, a soft pitch and against one of the best youth sides in the world, it was an exhibition that truly saw the Union as the aggressor. Strong defensive play from not just the likes of Anding and Kassel and Wheeler, but from academy stud Billy McConnell repeatedly kept Chelsea’s speedy forwards at bay. Conversely, the Union created numerous chances against a Chelsea back four that found it difficult to match the pace of players like Hoppenot, Torres and McLaughlin on attack. Both teams had go-ahead goals waved off as well as a Union free kick goal was pulled back for offsides in the first half and what looked to be a Chelsea game winner late in the second half was also overruled by the assistant referee.
“Brendan [Burke] organized the team really well and we made the match difficult for them,” said Wilson. “We asked the [defensive players] to stay back and had our midfield playing in front because I know Chelsea is the kind of team that likes to play balls through you. I think defensively we were excellent and both goalkeepers were fantastic.”
Expect more of these types of exhibitions to arrive in the future as Wilson, the former academies director with Scottish side Rangers FC before joining the Union notes that it’s these matches that go far in building players skill set – and not just technically.
“It’s important for us to play against some of the best young players in the world,” Wilson said. “I’d known from my own time at Rangers that Chelsea will have among them the best youth players worldwide and it’s good for our boys to experience that and to cope with it.”
Contact Union writer Kerith Gabriel at firstname.lastname@example.org