Sometimes, during small-sided games at training, when his team was waiting their turn to play, Anthony Fontana would roll the ball around each foot like a a magician moving a coin through his fingers. The movement is so smooth it looks as though the ball is on a defined track, rolling through a well-defined groove in space-time, with Fontana tracing a parallel route with his foot. After training, the teenaged midfielder, who, earlier this month, scored a hat trick with the US Under-20s, sticks around to refine the guidance system for the missile silo at the end of his right leg.
Anthony Fontana with the ball is a thing to behold; the player and ball moving in sync like Olympic figure skaters.
So the only question is whether he can refine the rest of his game until it's at a Major League Soccer level. That is a question of development, and Fontana did plenty of that in 2018.
In his only start of the season for the Union, playing as a Number 10, a position he was still learning, Fontana scored (and subsequently celebrated with the unabashed exuberance that the goal deserved). Future assist king Borek Dockal soon took over the creative midfield role, however, and Fontana's subsequent minutes were recorded in Bethlehem with Steel FC. He played as an attacking midfielder when Brendan Aaronson was hurt but moved back to a box-to-box role once Philly's newest homegrown player returned. In this deeper role, Fontana grew in confidence, and he began spreading the ball around the pitch, recognizing his pressing role, and, in startling moments of skill foreshadowed on the training pitch, manipulating the ball through traffic so easily that you felt slightly guilty for having watch such a thing happen to a defender.
Fontana started 16 games with Steel FC last season, logging 1,290 minutes in the process. He fought through a string of minor injuries before settling into a longer run of games during which he found the speed of the match once again and began to assert himself in the center of the field. The ceiling for Fontana is as a ball-moving midfielder with a vicious right foot and the ability to progress play with both his feet and his passing range.
"He covers a ton of ground and that's a really important component of his game," Bethlehem Steel FC Head Coach Brendan Burke said after the season. "And when you play that way you need to be fully fit and you need to be healthy and ready to really push. And I think that's where you saw him start impacting USL games this year a lot more than he has in the past."
Fontana will likely spend more time moving between Steel FC and the Union next season. Some may think his development has stalled, but in fact it will simply continue moving from the macro to the micro. Fontana understands the responsibilities of a pro midfielder now, but executing on a game-to-game basis on both ends of the pitch -- adding goals and recoveries -- is the next step toward a regular role with the first team. "Made his first team debut which is a huge feather in the cap," Burke confirmed. "But in terms of meaningful progress, I think you're seeing him become a little bit more defensively responsible in terms of not fouling and things like that, and it's leading to big opportunities for him and he's grabbing them with both hands, like that hat trick he had for the 20s the other day."
Fontana's hat trick occurred over a 20 minute span against St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It was a notably ugly trio of goals: A deflected shot, a goalkeeper fumble, and a penalty that was initially saved but rebounded to Fontana's feet for a tap-in. Even the ugly ones count, though, and a big takeaway from that match was that the young midfielder consistently arrived in the right place at the right time, ready to be that difference-maker the Union know he can be.
2018 was a season of development for one of the best prospects in the Union system, and 2019 may be more of the same. So be patient. Fontana went from a box-to-box player to a playmaker and back again in 2018, and he only began to play with the assured confidence that marks his best performances late in the Bethlehem Steel season. Those moments of magic from the training pitch? They started to show up during games. And that uniquely deep skill set was on display for veteran opponents as Steel FC stole huge points against Ottawa and Indy 11. The expectations for Fontana remain high, but only because he's fully capable of meeting them. Stay tuned in 2019 to see what heights the Union's young midfielder will scale next.