Originally, the news was met with trepidation. Auston Trusty, 19 years old, would be the starting left center back for Philadelphia Union. The Union were coming off a season in which former US international Oguchi Onyewu had spent significant time at center back, and now they were going to the opposite end of the spectrum: From veteran experience to zero MLS minutes. Jim Curtin said he would be patient; Philly wouldn't put Trusty in a position to fail. "The question for a coach is always: Do we think they're ready or are they actually ready?" Curtin said after the season. "And as a coach, you never actually know until you give them an opportunity on the field."
Throughout the preseason, Trusty demanded that opportunity. He worked hard in training, then when training was over, he worked even more. "He took every day very seriously," Curtin continued. "He stayed after training each and every day, worked his tail off on passing balls through the lines, winning balls in the air defensively." But that work didn't mean things would go smoothly for the young defender.
Opening match of the season. At home against New England Revolution. A player touted as heading for the top when he was a teenager broke behind the union defense. Against almost any other center back in Major League Soccer, Juan Agudelo was gone. "People think professional means doing everything perfect the whole way through," Curtin reflected. "But true professionals are the ones that bounce back after the hardest moments." As Agudelo entered the box, Trusty suddenly appeared behind him, lunging in to disrupt the play. It took an incredible effort, and it took an unwavering belief that his initial mistake -- holding Agudelo onside -- could be rectified through pure effort.
That belief would become Trusty's calling card. As expected, he made mistakes. And as the Union predicted: He always returned a day later ready to learn, work, and improve. By the end of the year, Trusty's potential became less and less a topic of discussion as his on-field performances took center stage.
Then came the US Open Cup final. As Philly suffered a what looked to be a back-breaking loss, Trusty created the memory that will be seared into Union fans' memories longest: An own goal and a terrible thirty seconds sitting on his knees in the box, unable to force himself to rejoin time and the world until Andre Blake dragged him to his feet. The young center back had shown fight and grit after Josef Martinez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic had knocked him down, but this was something on an entirely different level. No single superstar exposing Trusty's inexperience: A moment of awful luck at the worst possible moment, and another big in-conference match around the corner. Jim Curtin didn't give his defender time to brood, and through 90 minutes in Columbus Trusty showed why the Union truly believe they have a gem on their hands.
Careful to note that his young center back still has many mountains to climb before he's one of the game's elites, Curtin said of Trusty: "The best players in the world are defined by how you respond after the hard moment. After the own goal, after the mistake: How do you play in the next game. Auston -- every time he had a bad game or learned a lesson, he bounced back with a strong game. Columbus: the shutout. Kansas City, the incredible game he played there."
Trusty was tested again at the end of the season as a small pitch with unpredictable bounces helped undo the Union twice in a four-day span. After an eight-month season, it was a difficult finish to process; small margins can often haunt far more than large ones. Trusty certainly feels the pain of losing as much as anyone in the organization, but he only knows one way to respond.
"A lot of young players talk about wanting to get better and wanting to go play in Europe but they're not willing to put the work in to go do that," Curtin noted nearly a month after the season ended. "Auston's willing to put the work in."
In the offseason, Auston Trusty will work, just as he did before he was a starter.
Just as he did before he was the Defensive Player of the Year on a playoff team.
And in 2019 he'll be back, and he'll be better.
For more from our 2018 Philadelphia Union Season in Review series, click here.