“Iron sharpens iron,” said Andre Blake, when describing what his 11th Philadelphia Union training camp has been like so far.
The keeper crew in Clearwater for leg 1 of preseason is four strong, but only one has seen Major League Soccer minutes. During the first two weeks in Florida, 24-year-old Holden Trent, 17-year-old Union II player Andrew Rick, and 2024 MLS SuperDraft pick Francesco Montali have had the unparalleled opportunity to learn from Director of Goalkeeping Phil Wheddon and three-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake.
With Philadelphia Union II preseason about to kick into gear it’s likely the crew will grow in the coming weeks, but for now the young contingent of back-up net protectors are focused on absorbing as much as they can from the wealth of experience around them.
“I think they've been doing a pretty good job in training – everybody is looking sharp, and they're pushing every day, which is important,” Blake said.
“The goalkeeper position, it's a tricky position. Sometimes you have to be patient while you wait and you have to find the motivation to really bring it every day. I must commend these guys, they've done a fantastic job, coming to training everyday and showing up. Whenever they get a chance in a game, they always do their thing, so I'm really proud of them and I just want to encourage them to keep pushing,”
This year will be Blake’s first without veteran goalkeeper Joe Bendik as his back up since 2020; the 34-year-old’s contract expired at the conclusion of last season.
Instead, he has a fresh group of players behind him, prepared to compete for minutes whether it be in MLS NEXT Pro on Union II, or as Blake’s substitute come Concacaf Nations League final four in March and CONMEBOL Copa América in June, where he’ll more than likely represent his native Jamaica in net.
The Reggae Boyz start their Copa América campaign on June 22nd and could play until July 14th at the latest. Should they make the final, the Union would be without Blake for a minimum of five midsummer games against Eastern Conference opponents.
“Every day in training, we're competing. I'm learning from them, they're learning from me, and we just create that positive environment where everybody's learning, everybody's getting better, because again, whoever's playing on any given day, they're representing the Union so we need everybody to be up to the same standard,” Blake said.
For Wheddon, maintaining that Union standard of goalkeeping throughout the organization is a top priority.
“The biggest thing is the speed of the game, so our training has her up and replicate the game as much as possible. We try to do that as best we can to make sure that they see the things that they will see in the game when the chance comes,” Wheddon said.
“Everyone sees the same amount of reps, everyone is pushed accordingly. So it's going to be a battle to see who's going to step in there when Andre is not here, but obviously we'll discuss it as a staff when the time comes.”
Wheddon has integrated new and innovative keeper drills to the Philly GKU as of late, with the hopes of making training as realistic and game-like as possible, while also encouraging enjoyment and community in his corps. That collaborative atmosphere has been paramount for Rick, Trent, and Montali, who he says have each stood out in different ways so far.
“Andrew Rick at the moment, obviously he's the youngest. He has been like a sponge – he's trying to apply everything that all the information that we've given him so for him, it's been a great learning experience,” Wheddon said of the 17-year-old academy keeper.
“Holden is building on last year, he didn't see much time, but the goal for him obviously is to improve upon that this year and he's been very very solid throughout the first part preseason. Francesco has come in as a draftee and is very very good with his feet. But for him, the main thing is keeping up and trying to get up to the speed of the game, but he's been very impressive so far.”
What all three eager keepers have in common, however, is their appreciation for the opportunity to learn from Blake.
“He's an exceptional goalkeeper, and there's a lot of discussion which I really value in our group,” Wheddon said of the Union’s beloved 10-year-keeper.
“He's pointing things out to the younger goalkeepers, which is invaluable – he's got tremendous experience, and in my opinion, he's the best goalkeeper in the league. So who better to learn from than Andre Blake?”
Blake was in a similar position when he was their age, selected first overall by the Philadelphia Union in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft at 23 years old. A decade later, he’s grown to become been an exemplary leader, not only within the GKU, but for the team as whole.
“Proud moment to step up – it's a position that I've grown in over the years, to be able to lead a group of players is something that I take on the challenge of doing, it's never easy. But it's something that I cherish the moment,” Blake said.
“I'm just happy that Jim and the coaching staff would have seen something in me to give me that opportunity to lead you, and as I continue to grow into position, I try to do my best and to just see how best I can lead by example, on and off the pitch, to motivate guys and try to be there for them.”