Like most high schoolers, Philadelphia Union Academy students are in the midst of a well-earned break from the classroom. But that doesn’t mean they’ve slowed their pace on the pitch. For many, it’s just the opposite. Academy students and graduates have propelled the Union’s first and second teams through the dog days of summer, all the while working on their craft.
The club’s first team has had a favorable start to the inaugural Leagues Cup, finishing at the top of their group after winning their first two games against Liga MX teams Tijuana and Queretaro.
When the rosters were announced days before first kick, three current academy players were named to the Union side – 17-year-old goalkeeper Andrew Rick, 17-year-old midfielder David Vazquez, and 16-year-old midfielder CJ Olney appeared on the list alongside the typical lot of academy graduates turned signed first team players, adding youth and depth to the team’s arsenal.
“I think it's a good opportunity for them to experience knockout competition. Again, they're young, but in soccer I say it all the time – there's never too young or too old, there's only good and bad, and they're good players and they deserve to be a part of this competition. So, we’re excited,” said Head Coach Jim Curtin.
“There could be some opportunities for them. But make no mistake, we're gonna go for this trophy all out.”
Though none of the three current academy kids were on Leagues Cup matchday rosters during group play, academy grads still helped lead the charge toward the Union’s first two wins. Quinn Sullivan, Matt Real, Jack McGlynn, Nate Harriel all earned meaningful minutes for the Boys in Blue, and in the team’s 5-1 victory over Queretaro F.C., Harriel and McGlynn both contributed goals.
Union II is riding a hot streak of their own – Head Coach Marlon LeBlanc’s squad has remained unbeaten through their last six games, most recently earning a draw against English Football League’s Wrexham A.F.C. at Subaru Park in front of a packed home crowd.
The team persevered through a scorching heat, a two-and-a-half hour weather delay, and an eight-year average age gap between their starters and Wrexham’s to finish the friendly knotted 1-1.
Unsurprisingly, it was an academy product who shined for the Philadelphia squad on an international stage – midfielder Jeremy Rafanello earned the lone goal for Union II, netting an equalizing screamer in the final moments of the first half for his seventh goal of the year.
After the game, LeBlanc shared his appreciation for the club’s commitment to developing talent within the organization.
Though the draw didn’t count toward MLS Next Pro standings, the team’s play was a culmination of their recent momentum. Before the match they’d boosted their ranking to sixth in the Eastern Conference, all the while welcoming two academy signings in Rick and MLS NEXT All-Star defender Neil Pierre.
Class won’t resume until September, but the club’s recent successes at all levels have proved that even on summer break, the academy holds firm as a pillar of the Philadelphia Union’s collective success.
Sage Hurley - @SageHurl