When new Designated Player Borek Dockal was not ready for the 2018 season opener, Philadelphia Union Head Coach Jim Curtin turned to a player he had known for almost a decade: 18-year old homegrown player Anthony Fontana. It would have been enough just to play well in his Major League Soccer debut, but Fontana’s swift rise, culminating in a first team contract before he graduated high school, has never been about doing just enough. So he went out and scored the opening goal of Philadelphia Union's season, celebrating wildly in front of the fans with fellow homegrown talent Auston Trusty.
Starting — and, like Fontana, playing his first MLS minutes — at center back, Trusty was caught flat-footed early in the match and watched helplessly as Juan Agudelo sprinted past him for a breakaway. But it turned out the 19-year old, fresh from an offseason in which he scored in the 2017 U-20 World Cup, was not so helpless after all. Before the New England striker could fire a shot at Andre Blake, Trusty had executed a stunning recovery sprint to poke the ball away at the last moment, all the athleticism and determination that have led the Union to see him as a ceilingless talent on display at once.
On July 31, Fontana and Trusty will be joined by defenders Mark McKenzie and Matthew Real in Atlanta, where all four will compete in the MLS Homegrown Game against Mexican U-20 champions Tigres UANL.
The Union are only the second club to send four players to the Homegrown game in the same year after Real Salt Lake sent four in 2016. The big difference? Only two of RSL's players were under 20, and Phanuel Kavita was 23. All four of Philly's homegrowns are still teenagers, with an average age nearly 2 years younger than RSL's quartet when they played.
In short, Philly's academy is not just outputting top end talent at one of the highest rates in Major League Soccer, but it is producing that talent at a greater volume and younger age than has been done in the past.
Trusty and McKenzie have locked themselves into the starting center back roles for the Union and are in the midst of facing a string of elite strikers including Sebastian Giovinco, Kei Kamara, Josef Martinez, and Nemanja Nikolic. Real and Fontana have been spot starters for the first team while developing their skills with Union USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel. Fontana is learning to play higher up the pitch as an attacking midfielder, and Real is working on that most difficult of skills for modern fullbacks: When to get forward and when to stay back.
Union Academy Director Tommy Wilson is both confident in the players that developed under his guiding hand and curious to see how they deal with the pageantry of the All-Star game weekend experience. "Auston and Mark, they're playing against the senior ones each week, so it'll be interesting to see how they do against boys their own age," Wilson said, and then with a wry smile: "Sometimes that's more difficult.
"I know Tony Annan [the Academy Director] at Atlanta, who's taking the group," Wilson continued. "I know he's really excited about the boys, he was asking me about them and I was able to give him some background on them."
It has been a steep rise for all four homegrown products. No MLS minutes among them last season, and only Trusty as a Homegrown Game call-up to regular appearances on the gameday roster and a real sense that any week could be their turn in the lineup. Although the Union's reliance on veterans in the center, along with good fullback depth thanks to Ray Gaddis' strong season, have kept Fontana and Real out of the first eleven, all of the Union's homegrown players are reaping the rewards of competing each day in practice with more experienced players like Ale Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin.
When he signed on for the 2019 season, Medunjanin spoke specifically about how he sees part of his role as helping this talented crop of young Union players grow into regular contributors, and how taking that step is extremely difficult. "You know how young players are," Medunjanin said with a grin, "They play one games, two games well and think they are already there. That's how it is.
"We learn that in Holland," the Bosnian emphasized. "You always need to be 100% every training, you cannot switch off one, two games and come back. It's very difficult, especially for young guys."
An additional intriguing aspect of the Homegrown game for Philly's players? They have butted heads with Tigres' U-20 side on more than one occasion. "Our boys have played against Tigres in the GA Cup," Wilson said. "We always seem to get drawn against them."
"There have been a few battles," he smiles.
The Homegrown game will be another tough match, but it will also be a showcase for one of the top academies in MLS.