HARRISON, N.J. – In a league that is increasingly seeing high-end international talent flooding in from abroad, Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin was pleased to see the number of American players on the field on Saturday night at Red Bull Arena.
Perhaps none performed better than his two teenage center backs, fresh from the Union’s academy, who played a pivotal role in earning a 0-0 draw against the New York Red Bulls. And given how that 19-year old duo of Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty performed against one of the league’s leading scorers (watch their highlight reel above), there is every reason to believe these Homegrown Player signings will continue to play a big role in the coming weeks.
It was a total-team effort to secure the road point for a Union side that is now unbeaten in its last three games. Over their respective 90-minute shifts, McKenzie and Trusty's role included limiting the operating room for two-time MLS Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips, who currently sits in a four-way tie for the Golden Boot in 2018.
“As a coach, I can't create that in practice. It's impossible," said Curtin, who can relate to that challenge as a former MLS defender. "Until they go through it, I try my hardest to create it but I can't. The intensity that they play at, the speed of game, a young player is never going to be used to that and for them to both step up and handle it can confidence, with winning tackles, playing with a yellow card, too, by the way, playing smart -- we have asked them now through the weeks to grow and they are growing before our eyes and they are impressing."
Curtin praised both teams for daring to field academy players. The Red Bulls have among the strongest academies in the league and developed players in their starting XI like midfielders Tyler Adams and Sean Davis. They were part of 13 American players on the field in the match, Curtin noted.
Meanwhile, Curtin's young Union team possesses a solid spine that includes United States internationals CJ Sapong and Alejandro Bedoya as well as Bosnian international Haris Medunjaninand Czech international Borek Dockal, signed this offseason. The emergence of McKenzie and Trusty bring young depth to center back, where the Union also have 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year finalist Jack Elliott.
“Again, happy with where they are at," Curtin said. "But it was a total team effort. Don't want to take away from the rest of the group. I think everybody put a lot into it and again, almost disappointed that we didn't take three points.”
The Union have only conceded once in their three-match unbeaten run, but will almost certainly will have their defense thoroughly tested again this week, hosting the Chicago Fire on Wednesday (7:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info) before visiting Atlanta United and their dynamic offense on Saturday (7:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info).
For McKenzie and Trusty, it may be another valuable educational experience.
“It’s been great and the key is communication. They’re two young guys who want to learn. They take constructive criticism very well,” goalkeeper Andre Blake said. “So, that’s very important. In training, Haris and us, we try to be very hard on them and they’re willing to learn and that’ a very good thing. So, they’re going to make mistakes but we’re here to cover for each other and we’ve just got to keep going.”