Youth Experiencing Trial by Fire

Last Thursday won’t just be remembered as First Kick for Philadelphia Union.

It will also be remembered as First Kick in Major League Soccer for seven players – Roger Torres, Toni Stahl, Jack McInerney, Danny Mwanga, Amobi Okugo, Dave Myrie and Michael Orozco. 

It was tough enough playing the first game in club history under the bright lights of sold-out Qwest Field with a crowd of 36,241 yelling and screaming mostly for Seattle Sounders FC. It was even tougher considering the traveling 18-man roster averaged less than 24 years of age.

But for the Union’s young guns, getting this type of experience will help immensely as the MLS season progresses.

“We came out here and played our hardest in probably the toughest environment in the league,” McInerney said. “It wasn’t a good result for us but we will learn from it.”

Mwanga, the club’s No. 1 pick from Oregon State in the MLS SuperDraft, said he had been anticipating this type of atmosphere.

“Yeah, at first I was expecting to be a little nervous, but I was trying to limit my mistakes,” Mwanga said. “I think I did OK, not the greatest but good.”

Stahl, who hails from Tuusula, Finland, had a debut he’d like to forget.

In the 40th minute, Stahl went into the back of Fredy Montero as they both jumped for a loose ball. Stahl’s knee appeared to be a touch high into Montero’s back, and the rookie was given a second yellow card and thus a send-off to the locker room.

Feeling out the level of physicality in MLS is to be expected as a rookie. With the game being played at a much faster pace than many have ever experienced, it takes an adjustment period to figure out how to play aggressively without tempting the referees to reach for a card. Stahl, the 2009 Big East Midfielder of the Year for the University of Connecticut, will learn from these types of games.

Team Manager Peter Nowak won’t let youth be an excuse for very long, but he does acknowledge that it’s a factor. 

“I’m just looking forward to my team and the youngsters we played (Thursday), there was a lot of good effort,” said Philadelphia Union Team Manager Peter Nowak. “Overall, you can’t take away anything from these guys. If you look around we have to take everything into account, with the red card and still able to play our game in the second half.”

Since Day One, this group has been working together with one goal in mind – to play as a team. That mentality can be largely attributed to Nowak and pertains not only to the starting XI each game, but every man on the roster. 

“I wasn’t sure, but I prepared as if I was going to go in and I just got the call,” McInerney said. “I tried to make the most of my opportunity.”

There will be so many more opportunities this season beginning with the home opener April 10 against D.C. United at Lincoln Financial Field.

You’d better believe these young players will make a difference. In fact, the Union’s success this year will be determined in large part by how quickly the youngsters progress.

The process started at Qwest Field but the verdict is still being awaited. Either way, it’ll be fun watching their development the rest of the season and for years to come.

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