Philadelphia Union's academy has had a good year. The U12s and the U13s both won titles -- the GA Cup and ScotiaBank Concacaf Champions League respectively -- and two more players signed to the Union first team while three joined Bethlehem Steel.
As 2019 wraps up, the Union U19s and U17s are finishing out the Winter stages of the DA Cup aiming to finish on top of their groups and show the academy is truly stacked from top to bottom.
Union U19s head coach Kevin Coleman has his team 2-0 after two matches and in pole position to take first place with six goals scored and zero conceded. Coleman's squad faces San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday as they finish out the winter portion of the cup.
"19s is a great age group because you're dealing with the highest level and it's that transition phase because many of them are back and forth between USL and the academy," Coleman explained. Indeed, much of the U19s attack has spent significant time with Bethlehem Steel this season, and Patrick Bohui -- who scored in both of the team's games thus far -- is the youngest player ever to start or appear for Steel. Two more of Coleman's players, Jack de Vries and Cole Turner, have signed pre-contracts that will see them move to the Union first team on January 1 2020.
Coleman, who often assists with Steel training sessions, sees many of these teenagers struggle to make their mark at the USL level as they go toe-to-toe with bigger, stronger veterans.
"For those guys," he said, "These games are important because USL, which is hard and challenges them, means that when they come back down you want them to have success with the things they already do well."
The U19s first match against Miami Rush Kendall SC was a cagey showdown against an opponent that was comfortable without the ball. "Miami sat back and looked to counter," Coleman explained. "We had the majority of possession in their half, and the chances. But you're asking your back four to stay engaged and they had a guy up front that was a real threat, so that's a challenge."
After controlling that opener, the Union faced a Shattuck-St. Mary's side that aimed to press with their front six and disrupt Philadelphia's build-ups. "They were really compact and organized," Coleman admitted. "But for me, this was the best this group has played since the beginning of the season.
"After the game, our goalie said he was gifted a shutout, and then I realized we hadn't given up a shot."
Playing with a team mentality during this high-pressure event -- hundreds of scouts from college programs, MLS, and European clubs attend -- was a high priority for Coleman going into the event, so he was pleased that so many players took the extra eyes on them in stride.
"You can see the progress," he said. "[Regular Steel defender] Nathan Harriel has made big strides. Shanyder Borgelin, Axel Picazo.
"When you're comfortable, your habits aren't as good. It's just the little things. Habits, consistency, not big flashy plays just good decision-making, collective movements and collective defending, and just a team mentality, that's what we want to see."
So far, Coleman is happy. But until the final whistle blows against San Jose tomorrow, his team won't be assured of that top spot. The Quakes are in second place, and Philly will need to be up for this matchup against a quality MLS opponent.
That means getting the first goal, intelligent defending, and quick decision-making. Coleman knows what Ernst Tanner's system requires, and his young charges are executing on the big stage.